Obituary: Harry Whittington, palaeontologist

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Professor Harry Whittington, palaeontologist. Born: 24 March 1916, in Birmingham. Died: 20 June, 2010, in Cambridge, aged 94.

Described by some as one of the great palaeontologists of the 20th century, Harry Whittington was a remarkable scientist. He was still the world's leading expert on trilobites at the time of his death aged 94; a well travelled academic who carried out research at universities all over the world and the man who revealed what came to be known as the Cambrian Explosion, a paleontological discovery that changed the way scientists thought about evolution.

Harry Blackmore Whittington went to Birmingham University as an undergraduate, then got a PhD in geological studies there. His PhD was a study on a specific rock type named after a Welsh tribe, the Ordovices. Shortly after graduation in 1938 he was offered the chance to research at Yale on the back of a Commonwealth Fund fellowship.

During that initial two-year period at Yale he made two decisions that would change the course of his life, and consume him for the next 60 years: he married an American, Dorothy, and started focusing on trilobites. Trilobites (meaning "three lobed") are a fossil group of extinct, hard-shelled marine arthropods which lived in the sea but could crawl on land. They date from the early Cambrian to the end of the Permian ages, around 250 million years ago. More than 20,000 species have been identified in fossilised rocks. Whittington is responsible for discovering a vast number of those currently known by today's scientists.

At the end of his fellowship Whittington found himself in an awkward position: war had broken out and he was a conscientious objector. Not keen to return to Britain, he took a lecturing job at the University of Rangoon, Burma, but after the Japanese occupation began the couple moved to China.

Whittington took a job as a lecturer at the Ginling Women's College in Chengtu and was later promoted to professor, collecting many geological artefacts from the mountains.

After the war Whittington returned to England, lecturing at Birmingham, before leaving for Harvard University in 1949. His stay at Harvard lasted 17 years and when he left in 1966 he was Professor of palaeontology and curator of vertebrate palaeontology at the Museum of Comparative Zoology. His successor was the legendary Stephen Jay Goulding.

The next stage in Whittington's research was a major contributor to his eventual status as one of the world's greatest living scientists. He had returned to England in 1966, having been appointed the Woodwardian chair in geology at Cambridge University and subsequently been invited to British Colombia to study the Burgess Shale fossil fields. The Burgess Shale was ripe for greater understanding.Having been discovered by CD Walcott in 1909 the area had undergone intense investigation but someone of Whittington's calibre was needed to put the jigsaw together. He organised expeditions in 1966 and 1967 and set up a small team of scientists, all now well known in their own fields, and they set about dissecting Walcott's major finds.

Their work was time-consuming, painstaking and exacting as they literally and theoretically put the fossil pieces together. Their work began to reveal evolutionary peculiarities and mystifying fossilised remains that led to a new train of thought regarding the process of evolution. What Whittington had discovered over a period of many years (much of which was spent looking down a microscope meticulously reconstructing specimens in 3D from the flat fossils) was that evolution was not quite as straightforward as thought and might even be subject to change.

Whittington, however, was an academic, who studied in laboratories and researched in the field and mostly wrote about his discoveries in complicated academic rhetoric aimed at his peers. It took popular science writer, and his successor at Harvard, Stephen Jay Gould, to make Whittington's work famous. In 1989 Gould published Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History, which became a bestseller and Gould was well rewarded. Some felt that Gould had merely capitalised on the decades of work that had gone before him, but Gould was an exceptional scientist in his own right and realised the importance of Whittington's work; he wanted the world to understand what had been discovered. He was successful; Whittington had elucidated the nature of the Cambrian Explosion for the academics, and Gould gave it to the masses.

In the book Gould also brought forward some contentious theories on evolution of his own, some of which are still being argued over today. Work on the theory that was started by Whittington's team almost half a century ago also continues, although now without Whittington leading the charge.

When Whittington eventually "retired" in 1983 after a further 17 years in the Woodwardian Chair, he continued to research and produce scientific papers. For him, retirement simply meant that he was no longer being paid his previous salary; his work pattern remained the same and his final scientific paper was published last year.

In 1971 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society and in 2001 one he was awarded both the International Prize for Biology and the Wollaston Award. Unsurprisingly, these were just two of many awards he received throughout his extraordinarily long career.

Professor Harry B Whittington died in hospital in Cambridge on 20 June, 2010. His wife, Dorothy, had died in 1997. The couple had no children.