Paleonet: Fwd: [Science News] The Natural News for January 4, 2017

Plotnick, Roy E plotnick at
Thu Jan 5 19:06:48 GMT 2017

​From the Field Museum: *

Matthew Nitecki, 1925 – 2016*

We are sad to announce that Matt Nitecki, Curator Emeritus of 
Invertebrate Paleontology at The Field Museum, died on December 21, 
2016, after a long illness. Matt came to the Museum in 1965 after having 
served as curator of the Walker Museum at the University of Chicago. 
When the Walker closed, Matt oversaw the transfer of its 720,000 
specimens of fossil invertebrates to the Field, and came along with them 
as Curator.

Matthew H. Nitecki was born in Poland in 1925, and left with his mother 
and brothers in 1939 when Germany invaded Poland. After living in 
Romania and France, he attempted to join the Polish Army via England, 
but was jailed in Spain for illegally crossing the border while trying 
to get to Gibraltar. Eventually released to the Red Cross under a 
general amnesty of political prisoners under the age of 18, he made it 
to England, became a paratrooper in the Polish Army, and survived the 
Battle of Arnhem, well known from the book and movie /A Bridge Too Far/. 
Matt lived in England for several years after the war, going to school, 
including one year at the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies in 
Edinburgh, and then emigrated to the United States with his parents and 
twin brother. While working in Detroit, he saw a poster advertising the 
University of Chicago, and decided to enroll. He earned his Master’s and 
Ph.D. degrees from Chicago a few years later.

Matt was a prolific scientist, authoring more than 150 articles and 
writing or editing 25 books and monographs, including what for years was 
the standard reference on Mazon Creek fossils. His special interests 
were “problematic” fossils and the history of evolution, and he was 
considered the world expert on Receptaculitids (enigmatic Paleozoic 
marine fossils of indeterminate and contested phylogenetic placement, 
but currently considered to be a group of algae). He taught geology 
field courses in places like Starved Rock State Park, Galena and Apple 
Rock Canyon in Illinois, the Missouri Ozarks, and the Grand Canyon. He 
also ran the Museum’s Spring Systematics Symposium for many years (of 
which more later). Like most curators, Matt kept working after he 
“retired” in 1996, continuing his research on algae and problematic 
fossils. His book, /Receptaculitids: A Phylogenetic Debate on a 
Problematic Fossil Taxon/, was published in 1999, and other book 
chapters and articles followed into the early 2000s. His most recent 
project was a bibliography of 19^th century paleontologist James Hall, 
co-edited with his wife (and Field Museum Research Associate) Doris 
Nitecki and colleague Alan Horowitz; it was submitted for publication a 
few days after his death.

It is almost inescapable to consider some scientists “characters,” 
especially those with a few decades of fieldwork and academic battles 
under their belts. But someone who fled Nazism, did time in a Spanish 
prison, parachuted into the Battle of Arnhem, and became an expert on 
enigmatic fossils, must be considered a character of a different order. 
Matt will be remembered as an accomplished scientist, a gracious host at 
his and Doris’ home in the Indiana Dunes, and as a pint-sized, 
raspy-voiced, mischievous imp—but for many, Matt will always be first 
and foremost the mastermind of the renowned Spring Systematics Symposia 
in the 1980s—still remembered by old-timers at the University of Chicago 
as “the Nitecki talks.” Most of these symposia resulted in edited 
volumes, many of which are still in print. But more than that, many of 
these events packed the Museum’s James Simpson Theater with people eager 
to learn about the latest research or scientific controversy from 
experts recruited from around the world. It was a different time—no 
internet, no social media, cable TV just dawning—but these symposia were 
successful because of Matt’s foresight in choosing the right topics at 
the right time, and his passionate and energetic follow-through. Today 
institutions like ours continue to seek new ways to advance public 
understanding of science, while pushing the frontiers of knowledge and 
grappling with a broad range of global issues. Yet Matt was able to 
routinely get 500-plus people—a mix of academics and interested lay 
people—into the seats of a scientific symposium, year after year. Matt 
truly made the Museum a hub for the dissemination of scientific 
knowledge—a great accomplishment, and a huge contribution to The Field 
Museum, and to science more broadly.



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