PAUL COLINVAUX

Obituary
7 entries
  • "Paul was the best mentor any graduate student could ever..."
  • "I never actually met Paul but I was well aware of his..."
    - Vaughn Bryant
  • "A wonderful larger-than-life colleague at STRI, remembered..."
    - John Christy
  • "My deepest condolences. We met both of you on the WH Yacht..."
    - Miriam Jacob Mauzerall
  • "There are not enough words to circumscribe the legacy of..."
    - Enrique Moreno
The Guest Book is expired.

COLINVAUX--Paul Alfred.

Among the last generation of "explorer" scientists, Paul Alfred Colinvaux, 85, died February 28, 2016 on Cape Cod, MA, where he had lived and worked at the Marine Biological Laboratories after retiring, in 1998, from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Balboa, Panama. Colinvaux was Professor Emeritus at The Ohio State University, where he was a professor of Zoology from 1964 until 1991. In 2008, a National Public Radio host aptly described Colinvaux as "Linnaeus meets Indiana Jones." Over a fifty-year career, Colinvaux explored the Alaskan and Siberian Arctic, the Galapagos Islands, and the Amazonian jungle in Brazil, Ecuador, and Peru on a mission to discover the history of the climate. Trained as a paleoecologist, with a Ph.D. from Duke (1962) and post-doctoral training at Yale, Colinvaux extracted fossilized pollen from the bottom of ancient lakes as a tool to investigate climate conditions at the end of the last glacial maximum (20,000 years before present). Using little more than rubber boats, and a sediment "coring rig" he designed with OSU engineer Vincent Vohnout, Colinvaux and his team of scientists removed tubes of lake mud that had lain undisturbed for thousands of years. The pollen buried in the mud could then be dated and used to identify pre-historic climate conditions. In a pre-Google Earth era, without benefit of GPS technology, Colinvaux explored in the old ways, quizzing tribal fishermen and local traders, and poring over aerial maps to identify sectors of jungle to search for tiny, unmapped lakes undisturbed by human activity. At times, Colinvaux and his team were able to travel by helicopter or bush plane. More often, their targets were accessible only by foot or canoe, and so they marched through dense, uncharted jungle, for weeks at a time, with machetes in their hands, food and equipment on their backs. Colinvaux's early work in Alaska developed a 130,000 year-long data set that is still used to study the climate prevailing during the great Ice Age migrations across the "Bering Land Bridge." Colinvaux continued this work in Siberia in the last days of the Soviet Union, and his leadership role in early Reagan-Gorbachev-era "glasnost" helped establish an academic Edtente. At the equator, in the tradition of Darwin, Colinvaux was fascinated by the extraordinary, and to this day unexplained, vastness of equatorial species diversity. Ultimately, Colinvaux published evidence that he argued disproved the long- reigning "refugia" hypothesis, which posited that pockets of warm, wet flora might have survived the Ice Age, spurring localized speciation. Although the question remains unresolved, his research was instrumental in laying the foundation for modern thinking and research on Amazonian species diversity. When not in the Arctic, the Amazon or his laboratories, Colinvaux pursued other passions. At Ohio State, he was privileged to win every teaching prize then offered. His skill as an orator was renowned. During the Vietnam-era student uprising and occupation of Ohio State in May 1970, Colinvaux addressed, impromptu, a throng of demonstrating students, using the power of his voice and words to disperse the crowd. His oratory so influenced legendary football coach, Woody Hayes, that generations of OSU football players were urged to take Colinvaux's introductory ecology course. In 1973, Colinvaux authored the first undergraduate textbook in Ecology, which was used, in various editions, to educate generations of students in the United States and abroad. A lifelong oarsman who had rowed in Henley Royal Regatta, Colinvaux also was an original faculty advisor for the Ohio State University crew. In addition to extensive scientific writings and a memoir of his Amazon explorations ("Amazon Expeditions: My Quest for the Ice-Age Equator" (2008), Colinvaux was the author of two, widely read "popular" explorations of the intersection between science and such modern political issues such as global climate change and crowding due to over-population: "Why Big Fierce Animals Are Rare: An Ecologist's Perspective" (1978) and "The Fates of Nations: A Biological Theory of History" (1980). Both books were translated into numerous languages and published throughout the world. Paul Colinvaux was born in St. Albans, England in 1930. He grew up in London during the Battle of Britain, studying, even as a boy, the ecology of plant regrowth in the craters left by German bombs. A graduate of Jesus College, Cambridge University (1956), Colinvaux served in the British Army of the Rhine in occupied Germany as a Second Lieutenant, Royal Artillery, 42nd Regiment. In 1966, he discovered a new species of flower in the Galapagos, which was subsequently named for him ("Passiflora colinvauxii"), as was the Galapagos diatom, "Amphora paulii." In 1971, he was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship. In 2013, he received a lifetime achievement award from the American Quaternary Association. In addition to his beloved wife of fifty-four years, fellow scientist Llewellya Hillis, Colinvaux leaves a sister (Margaret Robinson of Norfolk, England), two children (Catherine Colinvaux of Northborough, MA and Roger Colinvaux of Washington, DC), four grandchildren, generations of students, and thousands of books.

Published in The New York Times on Mar. 27, 2016
bullet Ohio State bullet Princeton University bullet Yale University