Professor Paul Colinvaux
Among the last generation of “explorer” scientists, Paul Colinvaux, died in February 2016 on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, 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.
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, 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. 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.
Colinvaux explored in the old ways, quizzing tribal fishermen and local traders, interviewing bush pilots, and pouring over aerial maps to identify sectors of jungle to search for tiny, unmapped lakes undisturbed by streams or human activity. He and his team often marched through dense, uncharted jungle, for weeks at a time, with machetes in their hands, and their boats, 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 détente.
In 1973, Colinvaux published the first undergraduate textbook on Ecology, which was used, in various editions, to educate generations of students in the United States and abroad.
In addition to extensive scientific writings and a memoir of his Amazon explorations (AMAZON EXPEDITIONS: My Quest for the Ice-Age Equator (Yale University Press, 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 (Princeton University Press, 1978, winner of the Ohioana Book Award) and THE FATES OF NATIONS: A Biological Theory of History (Simon & Schuster, 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. Colinvaux was a graduate of Jesus College, Cambridge University (1956). Before attending Cambridge, he served in the British Army of the Rhine in occupied Germany. In 1971, he was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship. In 2013, he received a lifetime achievement award from the American Quaternary Association.
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