Obituary - Stephen Jay Gould, Paleontologist and Award-Winning Writer

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Esteemed scientist, elegant essayist, and award-winning author Stephen Jay Gould died on May 20 of metastasized lung cancer at his home in New York City. He was 60 years old.

A 20th-century renaissance man, Gould straddled the worlds of Harvard (where he taught his entire career after receiving a doctorate in paleontology from Columbia University) and main street, where readers made his many titles solid sellers for decades. Through his books, his regular column in Natural History magazine (which appeared in 300 consecutive issues between 1974 and 2001), and media appearances (a lifelong New York Yankees fan, he appeared in Ken Burns’ documentary Baseball), Gould became for many readers the literate voice of the illuminating power of science.

"He never wrote down to his audience -- he always respected his audience -- but he was able to translate science by using Gilbert and Sullivan, baseball, and any number of other things from everyday life," noted Edwin Barber, as quoted by the Boston Globe.

In 1974, Barber, then a senior editor at W.W. Norton, convinced Gould to begin writing about science for the general public. In the 1980s, Gould was awarded a National Book Critics Circle award for The Mismeasure of Man and a National Book Award for The Panda's Thumb: More Reflections on Natural History.

Gould’s major scientific contribution came from work he and colleague Niles Eldredge, now a curator of invertebrate paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History, conducted, which led in 1972 to the theory of punctuated equilibrium. Challenging the established Darwinian belief that evolution was a gradual, steady process, the pair argued that, instead, species evolved in sudden -- sometimes cataclysmic -- alterations followed by long periods of no changes.

In March, Harvard University Press published Gould’s The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, which was a capstone to his distinguished scientific career. And May 14 was the pub date for his final consumer title, I Have Landed: The End of the Beginning in Natural History (Harmony), a collection of his Natural History magazine pieces, which took its title from the journal entry his grandfather made upon arriving in America from his native Hungary on September 11, 1901.

Survivors include Gould’s mother, Eleanor; his second wife, Rhonda Roland Shearer; two stepchildren; and two sons from a previous marriage.