Obituary: Pierce Brodkorb

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The Independent Online
William Pierce Brodkorb, palaeornithologist, born Chicago 1908, died Gainesville Florida 18 July 1992.

Pierce Brodkorb was an eminent ornithologist whose deep interest in the evolution of birds eventually helped to establish him as one of the world's foremost pioneers of avian palaeontology.

Born in Chicago in 1908, Brodkorb moved to Gainesville, Florida, in 1946. There he took up a zoological post in the University of Florida, where he gained professorship in 1955. His career encompassed some 60 years of academic service, 43 of them spent at Gainesville, where he worked until retirement in 1989.

Brodkorb actively encouraged his students to take an interest in his pet subject, with the result that he produced a healthy crop of high-quality researchers who have prevented fossil birds (palaeornithology) from becoming another dodo in a now very competitive and over-commercial scientific arena.

Along with his teaching obligations, he single-handedly built up an impressive private collection of recent and fossil bird-bones, which he acquired from around the world. He eventually presented this collection to the Florida State Museum.

His research was not restricted to any particular group of birds, and he was quite happy to publish on either living or fossil species. He published his first paper in 1926, at the age of 18, and then went on to pen some 189 scientific publications. Within this lengthy list of papers, his Catalogue of Fossil Birds is acknowledged as his largest and most important contribution to the subject, and one that will continue to be a major source of reference for those specialising in this area of research. Containing some 518 pages, it was published in five separate parts, and appeared in the Bulletin of the Florida State Museum, Gainesville.

This massive paper, which took 15 years to complete, the first part appearing in 1963 and the last in 1978, lists the bibliographical details of all 2,000 known species of fossil birds which he had painstakingly abstracted from their original citings. It provides a quick and invaluable source of reference for any researcher wishing to obtain an author's name, geological and locality details and information concerning the composition of the specimen. At the same time, using his vast knowledge of the literature and personal experiences of the fossil bones, Brodkorb provided selected synonomies for each taxonomic heading, from order to species. Although the latter has received some criticism because of the subjective nature of the changes, the work remains the bible for anybody undertaking research on fossil birds.

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