Obituary: Professor John Wells
Friday 25 February 1994
JOHN WELLS was the leading authority on modern and fossil corals, a noteworthy contributor on coral reefs and atolls, and a scholar of great breadth and erudition who made innovative contributions over a wide area of geology and palaeobiology. His enthusiasms and knowledge made Cornell an international centre for scientists and students interested in his many fields of expertise and he freely gave them his help and hospitality.
Although born in Philadelphia, Wells was raised in Homer, in the Fingers Lakes area of New York, where he started to develop his knowledge of the famous local Palaeozoic rocks. He graduated from the University of Pittsburgh in 1928, and from 1929 to 1931 taught at the University of Texas, but completed a doctorate from Cornell in 1933. Then followed over a year in Europe as Research Council Fellow at the British Museum, the Musee Nationale in Paris, the Museum fur Naturkunde in Berlin and elsewhere, where he laid an authoritative foundation for his later taxonomic work on corals. He taught at Fredonia in 1937-38 and at Ohio State University from 1938 to 1948, before taking his position at Cornell in 1948, where he was Chairman of the Geology Department from 1962 to 1965, and Emeritus Professor since 1973.
During the Second World War Wells saw service in Europe with the Office of Strategic Studies providing assessments of war damage. He was a member of an early Allied group to enter Frankfurt am Main and was able to bring out a copy of the doctorate thesis published during the war of Professor Scott Simpson, later of Exeter University, Simpson having had to flee Frankfurt in 1939.
Wells wrote classic monographs on the corals of Texas, the Gulf coastal plains and the West Indies and South America. His knowledge of corals led to his appointment to expeditions to Bikini Atoll in 1947 and to Arno Atoll in 1950; this led to further monographs on the corals of the Marshall Islands. In 1954 he was Fulbright Fellow in the University of Brisbane, the home of Dorothy Hill, the doyenne of Palaeozoic coral workers. In 1956 the standard coral volume of the Treatise on Invertebrate Paleontology was published, mostly written by the two of them.
Wherever Wells had been he wrote papers on a range of subjects to draw attention to novelties. Thus he produced accounts of the vertebrate bone beds of the Devonian of Ohio, new records of European elements of sponges and goniatites in New York, and, increasingly, on the early history of geological investigations in North America. He had a complete collection of geological biographies on a high shelf around his sitting-room at Ithaca.
With George White of Illinois he sparked the flame that led to the History of the Earth Sciences Society. His historical interests were eclectic, and when a fond building was pulled down on campus he built a wall of its bricks and had a party to celebrate the rebuilding.
In 1963 he published a short letter in Nature suggesting that daily growth lines could be counted between annual rings in Devonian corals and that these indicated there were over 400 days in the year 350 million years ago and hence that the rate of rotation of the earth has been slowing down. JBS Haldane used this to illustrate how major scientific advances could still be made virtually with a hand lens. Later CT Scrutton showed how days in the lunar month could be deduced. It is from this work that, in 1992, Professor L. Berger of Louvain-la-Neuve was able to calculate changes in the orbital patterns of the Earth/Sun system with figures for the Precession of the Equinoxes, and Obliquity through geological time.
In 1932 Wells married Elizabeth 'Pie' Baker, the daughter of the Fingers Lakes artist WC Baker. At Ithaca they relished renewing the friendships of their earlier days. Pie published on local history and produced a catalogue of memorials at Cornell University. Together they established a summer home on the edge of Cayuga Lake, Lucky Stone Lodge, called after the small concretions with fossil wormholes through them which weathered out of the local Ledyard Shale and which they gave as amulets to visitors. Their hospitality there was supreme and lubricated by local wine and a special raspberry 'bounce'. Beside a picture window overlooking the lake the dining table was a full-sized billiard table, covered with plate glass, the baize lowered and tiered to provide an exhibit of the finest corals and molluscs from his Pacific wanderings.
Such collecting is now mostly not allowed in national parks, and the shells have to be left to be pounded by the waves, crushed, reduced to powder and lost forever. At Lucky Stone Lodge other evidences of Wells's enthusiasms were to be seen; what was perhaps the only collection of stamped bricks from disused brickpits in eastern North America; a complete collection of Penguin whodunnits; on the walls a collection of over 200 ornamented chamber-pot lids, all different; while windows were filled with pieces of old stained glass and everywhere was exotica from their travels. Then there were his collections of old maps, books, and of original letters of famous scientists from the last century.
John Wells was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1968, and received many honours including the presidency of the Paleontological Society in 1961-62 and their premier medal in 1974. In these days when university staff are obliged to waste much time filling in forms, counting the pages of their publications, and their 'citations', and having their undergraduates mark them, and other nonsense, how, one may ask, can the contribution of such a scholar, who by his erudition and knowledge, and sheer joie de vivre, gave so much to his students, friends and peers, ever be 'assessed'? It was fortunate that after he retired, when the department collections were to be discarded, he was at hand to incorporate them into the Paleontological Research Institute at Ithaca, of which he had been president.
His wife died in 1990, and they had been so close that it was for Johnnie Wells a devastating time. He is survived by his daughter, Ellen, Rare Book Librarian at the Smithsonian Institution, by two granddaughters and two great- grandchildren.
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