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Donald Russell: Paleontologiste français

Donald E. Russell never published a cladogram in his career. Such trees of relationships between species are too speculative for this paleontologist who has spent his life collecting fossils all over the world, his colleagues say. Instead, Russell has worked to gather support for evolution in the field, and his own revolutionary methods have helped amass huge amounts of paleontological data.

Donald Russell (left) walks with his former student Marc Godinot on a field trip to Berru, France. Russell received the Romer-Simpson Medal from the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, the society’s highest honor, in October. Courtesy of Jean-Pierre Boureux, Académie de Reims.

Russell, who received the Romer-Simpson Medal for outstanding scholarly excellence and service from the Society of Vertebrate Paleon-tology at its annual meeting last month, spent most of his professional career abroad. Born in Idaho in 1927, he received his undergraduate degree at Oregon State University in Corvallis. Russell obtained his master’s in paleontology in 1956 at the University of California, Berkeley, working with Donald Savage, after four years serving in the Korean War.

From the Pliocene mammals of Oregon, Russell moved on to the Paleocene vertebrates of the Champagne region of France. He started his doctoral theses at the Université de Paris and the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in 1957, completing them in 1964.

Russell gradually fell in love with France, says Marc Godinot, a mammal specialist at the Institut de Paléontologie of the École Pratique des Hautes Études, who studied under him in the 1970s and still occasionally goes into the field with him. Eventually, Russell ended up working with Denise Sigogneau, a specialist in mammal-like reptiles at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, who became his wife. Russell spent the rest of his career at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris, retiring in 1992.

In the late 1950s, Russell introduced the technique of washing and screening to French paleontologists, Godinot says. “People used to work on what you could see,” he says, for example, whatever washed out of Badlands deposits in the American West. But that limited researchers to animals “about the size of a dog,” whereas smaller rodent-sized creatures could tell more about the early phases of mammalian evolution. Washing and screening rocks and sediments in massive amounts provided scientists with tiny teeth, crania and other body parts that had been missed.

Russell’s use of that technique was not limited to France, and he washed and screened tons of materials in the field. He traveled to Pakistan, Morocco, China and elsewhere, drawing together data on mammal fossils from around the world. He led the field trip that discovered the first dinosaur in Venezuela while looking for Mesozoic mammals, among other watershed discoveries, he wrote in a memoir in 1986.

Another technique that Russell introduced to his colleagues — which he may have been the first to apply to fossils — was a casting method using plastic. Plaster molds had been the norm for examining fossils that researchers did not want to destroy or to which they could not obtain access. But the casts were vastly inadequate, frustrating Russell for years, Godinot says. Russell perfected making copies of fossils from field discoveries or from museum collections using a hard resinous plastic, much like the material dentists use.

The technique creates extraordinarily accurate reproductions that are detailed enough to use in scanning electron microscopy, Godinot says, preventing the need for coating original fossil material with metals like gold to reflect the electrons. The process allowed Russell and other paleontologists to amass a large collection of fossil copies for handheld studies, without the need to travel to other institutions. Russell considers this one of his most important contributions to paleontology, he wrote in his memoir.

More recently, though he is now retired, Russell has spent time in the field in France, for example, assisting local educators in their work through the Académie de Reims, the organization that oversees education in the city of Reims (in the Champagne district). His dedication to amateur paleontologists over the years has brought a welcome addition to his home museum’s collections, as well as bucking a trend among French researchers in the field.

“Some are very opposed to amateurs,” Godinot says, as amateurs may not wish to show their collected fossils to experts and instead sell them to private collectors, or amateur collectors may destroy sites that are documented in the literature. Russell, however, “obtained important gifts” from collectors, and worked closely in particular with Pierre Louis, a banker who made important paleontological finds. Louis’ collection was sold at a token price to the Muséum National, Godinot says, and Russell maintains catalogs of other amateur collectors’ work for future reference. Russell’s work is an example of “how profitable for paleontology” such alliances can be, he says, “even if in a few cases it fails.”

Russell’s generosity in the field, to professional colleagues and amateurs, also was reflected at home. Philip Gingerich, another colleague and former student of Russell’s, recalls that when he came to Paris for work on his thesis in the summer of 1973, Russell left him the keys to his houseboat on the Seine. Such trust was a surprise to the young man at the time, who now recalls that Russell said, “Here is my péniche, here is my desk, here is my library, and here are the keys to [my] collections — and then he left for two months” for fieldwork. “It was just like being at home,” Gingerich says.

“When I was his student,” Godinot says, “I could knock at his door at any time,” to use Russell’s personal library or collection of prints. “He is an original personality.”

Naomi Lubick

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