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*Franco Rasetti (1901-2001)
*Biology prize to Harry Whittington
*Medals to Adrian Rushton
*Brian Pratt scoops medal
*Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002)
*Sunplus: Cambrian trilobites by Pete Palmer
*The first trilobite collector by Rolf Ludvigsen
*Carb. and Permian trilobites by Gerhard Hahn
*New Brunswick Museum
*Ron Tripp (1914-2001) Reminiscences by Rushton, Temple, Zhou and Rudkin
*Midsummer's night by Pete Palmer
*Joseph Emielity (1915-2002)
*Trilobites of New York review by Sam Gon
*Treatise update by Richard Fortey
*The giant trilobite reprised
*Working for the Man by Terry Fletcher
*The Taconic System by Ellis Yochelson
*South China 2003 symposium
*Walcottiana by Ellis Yochelson
*Sloss Award to Pete Palmer
*A century ago: 1902 by Gerd Geyer
*Trilobite - a vacuum cleaner
*Trilobite Types
*The Trilobite Gallery




FRANCO RASETTI (1901 - 2001)


In the twentieth century virtually every paleontologist entered the profession with an advanced degree in some aspect of fossil study, either in geology or biology. Previously, many paleontologists started as amateurs who eventually gained professional status after years of work. Only rarely does a scientist from a distant field choose to become a paleontologist - none, perhaps, from a field as paleontologically incongruous as Franco Rasetti's.

In the late 1930s as Quebec industry began to recover from the Depression, Laval University in Quebec City established a Faculty of Science to help meet an anticipated shortage of French Canadian scientists and engineers. The new faculty encompassed chemistry, mathematics, geology and biology; but, significantly, not physics which did not then exist as a formal department at Laval. The approaching war and the ensuing break-up of a number of research groups at European universities, created a unique opportunity for Laval to hire a top-notch scientist to set up and to head a physics department. The most renowned and successful of the European research groups was the one at the Institute of Physics at the University of Rome that was headed by Enrico Fermi. Fermi, who had received the 1938 Nobel Prize in Physics for the discovery of new radioactive elements produced by neutron irradiation, was already in America -- at Columbia University in New York City. His right-hand man, Franco Rasetti, however, remained in Fascist Italy but, understandably, was eager to leave. So early in 1939, Cyrias Ouellet, professor of chemistry, was dispatched from Quebec City to Rome to make covert contact with Rasetti to try to convince him to come to Laval University. Ouellet remembers that the operation was straight out of a spy novel. In order to gain entry into Italy, he had to pretend that he wanted to go to Rome to visit an aunt and, to avoid detection by the police, Rasetti and Quellet finalized their arrangement while they strolled through the streets of Rome, far from indiscreet ears.

Attracting Franco Rasetti to Laval was a remarkable coup for this small university not far removed from its roots as a parochial Jesuit seminary. Rasetti was a well-connected physicist with a first-rate international reputation. He had been professor of spectroscopy at the University of Rome, written the first textbook in the field, Elements of Nuclear Physics, and had been a visiting scientist at the top physics laboratories at Cal Tech, Columbia and Berlin. Rasetti had worked closely with his friend Enrico Fermi ever since they were students together at the University of Pisa in 1918. In the light-hearted hierarchy of nuclear physicists in Italy, he was "The Cardinal" to Fermi's "The Pope". Collectively with Edoardo Amaldi, Emilio Segrè, and Oscar D'Agostino, Fermi and Rasetti were known as "the Boys (Ragazzi) of Via Panisperna" after the street where the Institute of Physics was located in Rome.

When Rasetti arrived in Quebec City in 1939, he was met by a crowd of physicists, each eager to meet and talk to this scientific celebrity. His reputation was such that he quickly attracted a number of excellent graduate students to Laval University. One of these, Larkin Kerwin, went on to head the National Research Council of Canada and later the Canadian Space Agency. Kerwin remembers Rasetti warmly (letter, March 11, 1988):

"Rasetti had a strong and continuing influence on Canadian physics. He founded the Laval department pretty much on a shoestring. He was an experimentalist and developed a program that was heavy on laboratory work. He did not buy things -- he made them, and for a generation most of the equipment was made in the department. He was reputed by the Italians to have as fine a brain as Fermi, and I can well believe it. He did a lot of research himself and he launched the first graduate students in fields which have flourished and are still strong at Laval. His standards and integrity are still by-words."

Rasetti's interests, however, extended well beyond physics. He was a passionate naturalist with remarkably broad interests. In her book of reminiscences, Atoms in the Family, Laura Fermi described him, "Rasetti, a first-year student of physics like Fermi, was not a usual person; his main interest was directed to that part of the world which is not made of human beings. He was a born naturalist." In Italy he had been an accomplished entomologist who had assembled a unique collection of cave-dwelling beetles. He was also a talented botanist with a special interest in alpine flowers and European orchids. After he was settled in Canada, Rasetti looked around for an outlet for his considerable naturalist enthusiasm and energy. His colleague Father J. Willie Laverdiere, chairman of the Department of Geology, suggested that he take a look at the fossils that are found in some abundance in the rocks exposed in and around Quebec City, and particularly at Levis, directly across the St. Lawrence River from Quebec City. Many types of fossils occur in these rocks, but undoubtedly the most appealing are the trilobites.

Rasetti had no previous experience with fossils, but with characteristic drive and determination he set out to become the only trilobite specialist in Canada -- all the while maintaining his teaching and research duties as a professor of physics. Over the next couple of years, he read everything he could about these fossils and collected from all of the fossil-bearing localities near Quebec City and further afield. As early as the summer of 1940, he ventured up the Gaspé Peninsula in search of trilobite-bearing conglomerates. The next year, he travelled to Yoho National Park in British Columbia to collect Middle Cambrian trilobites from Mt. Stephen and other localities visited by C.D. Walcott. Here he was joined for a few days by Charles Resser of the Smithsonian who gave him pointers on how to collect these fossils.

Rasetti's fossil collecting excursions would not have been without personal risk, particularly after June 10, 1940 when Italy declared war on Britain, and Canada, in turn, declared war on Italy. A tall lanky man with a strange accent skulking along the rocks on the Gaspé coast would surely have been viewed with considerable suspicion by local farmers and fishermen newly preoccupied with thoughts of sabotage and espionage. During the war no fewer than 700 men of Italian origin, and mostly from Quebec, were rounded up by Canadian authorities and interned as "enemy aliens", some for the duration of the war. Although Rasetti's academic position would have conveyed relative immunity, the president of Laval University still felt it necessary to contact the commander of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to assure him that Professor Rasetti was an Italian national who was entirely opposed to the fascist politics of Benito Mussolini.

Initially, Rasetti concentrated on trilobites in limestone boulders from conglomerate beds in shales of the Levis Formation. These boulders are mainly fist-sized or smaller, but some are truly enormous. An unusually large boulder of white limestone located behind St. Joseph Church measures fully 12 metres across. Larkin Kerwin notes that his graduate students were frequently pressed into service to collect and prepare trilobites because, in Rasetti's view, such work contributed to the education of a well-rounded scientist. Rasetti was not, by any means, the first paleontologist to work on the Levis trilobites. The pioneering work on these fossils was done in 1860 by Canada's first paleontologist, Elkanah Billings and, later in the 1920s, Thomas H. Clark completed a Harvard thesis on the stratigraphy and fossils of the Levis Formation.

After a few years of assiduous collecting, Rasetti had amassed thousands of Cambrian trilobite specimens from the Levis Formation that were catalogued and neatly stored in his office at Laval. Each specimen was trimmed of its extraneous matrix so that the limestone chip preserving the trilobite head or tail is sometimes no larger than 3 or 4 millimetres. The significant specimens were assigned four-digit LU (Laval University) numbers and stored in an unusual manner. Each specimen or group of specimens was (and still is) kept in a metal cigarette box -- the flat 50s made by Canadian cigarette manufacturers in the 1940s with brand names such as Turret, Consols, Greys, Daily Mail, Craven A, Sweet Caporals and Gold Flake. The central part of the lid was cut away and replaced by a glass plate. The trilobite specimen was secured against the bottom of the glass plate by cotton batten. Rasetti's trilobite collections were kept in these compact boxes and a needed specimen could readily be found by flipping through stacks of them, each like a slippery deck of fat playing cards.

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Rasetti's unique curation and storage system of trilobite types in cigarette tins

After reviewing all previous publications, Rasetti concluded that there was ample scope for further work on the Levis trilobites. In the cigarette boxes kept in his office were many more species than Billings and Clark had recognized. The old trilobite illustrations were clearly inadequate -- Billings' woodcuts and Clark's drawings -- and most of their identifications were now obsolete and in need of revision. These well-preserved fossils, many tiny and inflated, were crying out for high quality photographs. And, finally, the fact that the boulders were of quite different ages had never been fully documented. The graptolites firmly date the Levis Formation as Early Ordovician but, based on the trilobites, the bulk of boulders are Late Cambrian in age, some are Middle Cambrian and Early Ordovician, a few are as old as Early Cambrian.

We can map Rasetti's road to paleontology by his publication record. In the early 1940s he published papers with titles such as "Scattering of thermal neutrons by crystals" and "Evidence for the radioactivity of slow mesotrons" in the journal Physical Reviews. A few years later the titles of his published papers read "Evolution of the facial sutures in the trilobites Loganopeltoides and Loganopeltis" and "Description supplementaire de trois genres de trilobites cambriens" and appeared in the Journal of Paleontology and Naturaliste canadien. By 1945 and 1946, when he published eleven papers on trilobites, Rasetti had clearly become a paleontologist. But that did not mean that he ceased being a physicist. At the time he expanded his trilobite work to the central Appalachians in the 1950s, he also published an important series of papers on gamma-ray spectra and radioactive decay in Physical Reviews.

In the early war years when Rasetti was busy making himself into the sole trilobite specialist in Canada, a few hundred miles away at the University of Chicago his old friend Enrico Fermi was ushering in the atomic age by designing and assembling the first nuclear reactor. And when Fermi's group achieved the first self-sustaining chain reaction at the squash courts under the University's Stagg Field on December 2, 1942, Rasetti was in Quebec City, probably checking the proofs of his first paper on trilobites in the Journal of Paleontology. With knowledge of his expertise, background, training and association, it might be supposed that he would be found working with his friends and colleagues from Italy at the University of Chicago and later on the Manhattan Project. After all, on July 2, 1940, "the Boys of Via Panisperna" had been granted U.S. Patent No. 2,206,634 for the production of radioactive substances through neutron bombardment -- a process that is basic to all nuclear reactions. In 1953 the U.S. government settled the patent by paying each inventor $24,000.

Rasetti stayed with his trilobites at Laval because he did not want to get involved with military work and because he knew, perhaps better than anyone, that the work he had started with Fermi in the 1920s could only result in the creation of new and monstrous means of destruction. When Rasetti heard about the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, killing 140,000 people, he raged, "Physics has sold its soul to the Devil!". Later in the '60s he received an attractive offer to become scientific director for Euratom, the European Atomic Community, but he chose to stay with paleontology and trilobites, "Here, at least, one is not likely to kill anyone".

In 1957 he received an honorary degree from the University of Glasgow. The citation read, in part,

"But the exhilaration of such a career in nuclear physics also served to intensify Dr. Rasetti's solicitude for the sanctity of the human spirit. Oppressed by the possibility that evil men might use his further discoveries to place mankind in jeopardy, he turned his back on research of this kind."

Larkin Kerwin, Rasetti's last graduate student at Laval, explains his supervisor's reluctance to go to the US somewhat differently,

"Rasetti did not go to the USA because he knew he would get involved with war work. He was not a pacifist in the usual sense of the word. He simply considered war to be stupid, and did not wish to be involved with stupid things. There appears to have been little of the moral or the political aspects to the question. It was intellectual, and Rasetti was purely an intellectual person."

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Franco Rasetti in his laboratory at Johns Hopkins University in 1953 showing some of his trilobite collection. Photo courtesy of the Ferdinand Hamburger, Jr. Archives
at Johns Hopkins

Franco Rasetti left Canada in 1947 to take up a position as professor of physics at Johns Hopkins University where he remained until retiring as professor emeritus in 1970. At Baltimore he extended his trilobite work to other parts of North America -- Newfoundland, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, and Tennessee -- but continued to publish on Cambrian trilobites from the Quebec City area and Gaspé Peninsula. Two field season's work in the Canadian Rockies in the late '40s culminated in the publication in 1951 of a classic work on Middle Cambrian stratigraphy and trilobites of Yoho and Banff national parks of British Columbia and Alberta. Every student who starts work on any aspect of Cambrian trilobites in North America somehow has to get a hold of a copy of this monograph, now long out of print.

In 1952, and less than ten years since he published his first paper on trilobites, Rasetti's reputation as a master trilobite paleontologist was acknowledged by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences when it awarded him the Charles Doolittle Walcott Medal. About this time he was also invited to contribute to the Trilobite volume of the Treatise on Invertebrate Paleontology which was finally published in 1959. Rasetti's contributions are immediately recognizable by his boldly executed reconstructions of trilobites. His last paleontological publication, on the Cambrian trilobites of Sardinia, was published in Italy in 1972.

Later, he returned to one of his early naturalist loves by publishing a large book on alpine flowers in Italian that was illustrated by more than 500 of his own colour photographs. In the foreword to this book, the eminent Italian geneticist Giuseppe Montalenti asserted that, contrary to the conventional view, Rasetti's true avocation was natural science - paleontology, geology, entomology, and botany -- and that, in a sense, physics was only his hobby. However, a man who was a professor of physics for 40 years in Italy, Canada and the United States and who published more than 80 scientific papers in physics along with a text book can hardly be considered a hobbyist in any sense. We prefer to think of Rasetti as a polymath who was variably accomplished as a professional in a number of fields in physical and natural sciences; including concurrent mastery of nuclear physics and trilobite paleontology.

In 1995, a member of the Italian government along with representatives from Italian universities travelled to Belgium to bestow a unique national honor on the old man. He was made Knight of the Great Cross of the Republic of Italy (Gran Cavalieri di gran Croce all'ordine de la Republica Italia) -- an honorific created specifically for him. A critic at the back of the room might have commented, sotto voce, "Well, it's about time". The previous honor received by Rasetti from the Italian government had been the Prix Mussolini in 1938.

Franco Rasetti, whose life marched, step by step, with the twentieth century, died in Waremme, Belgium on December 5, 2001 at the age of 100. Much of the middle third of his life was devoted to the study of trilobites.


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Jana Bruthansova of the National Museum in Prague, Czech Republic, submitted this intriguing photo of an Ordovician D-cup brassiere. Pricyclopyge or Maidenform ?



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University of Toronto trilobite paleontologists at the Canadian Paleontology and Biostratigraphy Seminar in Albany, New York, September, 1986. From left: Graham Young (M.Sc., 1984), Steve Westrop (Ph.D., 1984), Brian Pratt (Ph.D., 1988) and Rolf Ludvigsen.



The giant Isotelus specimen was discovered on the shore of Hudson Bay two years ago during joint field work of the Royal Ontario Museum and the Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature (see TP-12, p. 6-9). Dave Rudkin reports that it has already found its way into the "Guinness World Records 2002" and, with a pretty colour photo, into the 2002 "Britannica Book of the Year".Perhaps the most intriguing reference to this specimen is in Unless, a new novel by the Pulitzer Prize winning Canadian author Carol Shields that has just been nominated for the Booker Prize. She describes the preoccupation of Tom Winters, a family physician in Orangetown, southern Ontario:

" It is my belief that he thinks about trilobites all the time. While he's checking out a prostate gland or writing a prescription for asthma drugs, a piece of his mind holds steady to the idea of 500 million years ago - unfathomable to me - and the extinct, unlovely arthropods that occupied every sea and ocean in the world. They hung around for a long time, something like a hundred million years. Some were half the size of a thumbnail and some were a foot long. Recently, a giant trilobite was found near the shores of Hudson Bay, a monster measuring 70 centimetres - that's two feet, four inches. Ugly but adaptable creatures, trilobites, and obliging with their remains. A head with bulging eyes, a thorax, a tail of some sort; a little three-part life that once was. Tom loves them, and so we all love them."  

Carol Shields must have taken a geology course or two because she had previously included a reasonably accurate description of Tyndall Stone in another best-selling novel The Stone Diaries, which is a compassionate fictional account of the life of Daisy Stone Goodwill, the daughter born to quarry worker Cuyler Goodwill and his wife Mercy Stone of Tyndall, Manitoba in 1905. Tyndall Stone, the mottled Upper Ordovician limestone quarried here, is the most commonly used building stone in Canada:

" The stone itself, a dolomitic limestone, is more beautiful and easier to handle than that which my father knew growing up in Stonewall, Manitoba. Natural chemical alterations give it its unique lacy look. It comes in two colors, a light buff, mixed with brown, and (my favorite) a pale gray with darker gray mottles. Some folks call it tapestry stone, and they prize, especially, its random fossils: gastropods, brachiopods, trilobites, corals and snails. As the flesh of these once-living creatures decayed, a limey mud filled the casings and hardened to rock."



CD-ROM (pdf): The Trilobite Papers 14


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