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

Pratt, Brian brian.pratt at
Thu Jan 5 20:46:27 GMT 2017

Dear Roy,

Thanks for passing this along. A little testimonial, if i may... I followed Matt's work closely, but we finally met in the late 1990s at a conference in Krakow. It was quite amusing watching him *trying* to speak Polish to some of the university staff involved in the organization and housing etc. and them responding in English! We all had a whale of a time at that conference, and at one point Matt and Doris came up to me and said they wanted to adopt me! Not long afterwards I was one of the reviewers of the Nitecki & Mutvei volume and enjoyed the task thoroughly, and especially the long phone call we had to discuss it afterwards. An enthusiast of evolutionary theory too, he was an inspiration.

Brian Pratt

On 2017-01-05, at 1:06 PM, Plotnick, Roy E wrote:

​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 19th 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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Prof. Brian R. Pratt
Department of Geological Sciences
University of Saskatchewan
114 Science Place
Saskatoon, Saskatchewan S7N 5E2

brian.pratt at<mailto:brian.pratt at>


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