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Richard Cifelli, 1923 - 1984

The scientific community, and particularly those of us that work on foraminifera, have lost a fellow researcher, a mentor, and a friend. Richard Cifelli died of cancer on May 21, 1984, at his home in Silver Spring, Maryland.

Dick had a long association with the Cushman Foundation for Foraminiferal Research. He was elected to the Board of Directors in 1960 and remained an active member until his death, serving a term as vice president, and two as president. His counsel will be greatly missed.

He was born April 26, 1923 at Newark, New Jersey. During World War I1 he served as a naval officer in the Pacific Theater and participated in the invasion of Okinawa. He received his B.A. from the University of Montana in 1948, M.A. from the University of Cali-fornia (Berkeley) in 1951, and Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1958. He worked four years as a petroleum geologist for Phillips Petroleum Co., and then taught at Brown University for two years.

In 1959 he joined the research staff of the Department of Paleobiology, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution. He was curator of the Cushman Collection, and through persuasion and a good deal of perseverance managed to get many of his colleagues to deposit their specimens at the Museum. The Collection grew significantly during his tenure as curator, and all of us can be thankful.

Early in his career Dick participated in numerous oceanographic cruises in conjunction with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution where he was an Associate in Oceanography. These cruises, and other ma- terial sent by WHOI, brought about 1000 plankton samples from the North Atlantic, Mediterranean, Equatorial Atlantic, and South Atlantic to the Cushman Collection. He also made collections from the Cretaceous and Tertiary of Trinidad, the Late Tertiary of New Zealand, and the Jurassic of the Mid-Continent region of the US. All of this material has greatly enhanced the value of the Museum’s collection.

A thorough review of Dick’s research contributions would be inappropriate here, but two examples will highlight the value of his intellect to science.

Some biogeographers view the ocean as a static mass crisscrossed by lines of latitude and longitude. Dick‘s time at sea taught him that the ocean is a dynamic system. From these experiences he realized that the distribution of planktonic species should not be evaluated simply in terms of temperature and latitude, but with regard to circulation, ocean climate, endemism, dispersal and expatriation. He was able to show that the distribution of modem planktonic foraminifera is asymmetrical in the North Atlantic. This asymmetry correlates with the hydrographic asymmetry of the North Atlantic, where at high latitudes the isotherms are deflected to the north on the eastern side. By studying their distributions from cores, Dick recently showed that planktonic species had a much wider (N-S) distribution in the Miocene, and that the present oceanic circulation did not come into being until the Pliocene.

His paper, entitled “Radiation of Cenozoic planktonic foraminifera,” is used as a textbook example in many paleontology courses. He was the first to show that the Cenozoic planktonic foraminifera exhibited an iterative pattern of evolution very similar to the Mesozoic ammonites. He was able to do so by disregarding genus and species names and using morphotypes instead. The pattern was, of course, there before he discovered it, but finding it required the shedding of the constraints most of us work with.

At the time of his death, he was working on the history of the radiation of Globorotaliids, with reference to their biogeography and evolutionary strategies, and on the history of foraminiferal classification, including the philosophies behind them. In the latter work he intended to include the most recent classifications, but only got as far as the end of the Cushman era. The few who have read the manuscript are most impressed and amazed at how much we didn’t know about a field in which we are supposed to be experts.

Over the years Dick helped many students, both pre- and post-doctoral. He was willing to spend a good deal of his time giving them advice and pointing out fruitful directions for research.. A number of current workers, including myself, were introduced to foraminifera by Dick. We will all miss his helpful criticism, sound advice, sense of history, and cynical wit.

On behalf of the scientific community, I express our deepest sympathy to his wife Mary and their four children: Roxanne, Richard L., Alan V., and Robert C.

Smithsonian Institution
Washington, DC 20560

Reproduced From: Journal of Foraminiferal Research, v. 14, no. 3, p. 234-235, July 1984
Original pdf: Richard Cifelli (1923-1984)





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