Royal Society Publishing

Harry Blackmore Whittington. 24 March 1916 — 20 June 2010

Richard A. Fortey


Harry Whittington was a palaeontologist of distinction who progressed through academic life from a modest background in the Midlands to become an authority on trilobites, and was the scientist who led the re-evaluation of the Cambrian faunas of the Burgess Shale. His studies of silicified trilobites revealed an array of previously unknown morphological details, and identified larval features of many species for the first time, with implications for the classification of the group as a whole. He recognized patterns in the distribution of Ordovician trilobites that anticipated a revolution in palaeobiogeography after the application of plate tectonic theory to the Lower Palaeozoic. The Burgess Shale project cast new light on the early evolution of complex life on Earth. Whittington had a career of exceptional longevity, which reached its acme long after the age of normal retirement and continued almost without a break to his ninetieth year. He was a professor both at Harvard University and in the University of Cambridge, and inspired a generation of palaeontologists who became well known in their own right. His meticulous reconstructions of Cambrian animals, based on his insistence on facts before speculation, revealed the morphological complexity that was already present in the Cambrian world, especially among arthropods, and provided evidence of curious designs that seemed to be far removed from those of organisms still living. He set the standard for the description and naming of organisms preserved in Konservat-Lagerstätten, those rare occurrences with fossils of soft-bodied organisms. The origination of the major living animal groups by the Cambrian was established by this work, which documented the Cambrian evolutionary ‘explosion’ in detail for the first time.