University of Michigan professor and curator emeritus, Gerald R. Smith, died peacefully at his home in Cheslea, MI on September 20, 2022. Smith leaves behind an outstanding legacy at the Museum of Paleontology, the University of Michigan, and the wider academic community.
Jerry received his B.S. (1957) and M.S. (1959) degrees from the University of Utah, not far from where he was born and raised in Salt Lake City. In 1965, he completed his Ph.D. in Zoology at the University of Michigan, and in 1969, after three years on the faculty at the University of Kansas, he returned to Michigan to join the University of Michigan faculty as an assistant professor and assistant curator. He was promoted to associate professor and associate curator in 1972, curator in 1973, and professor in 1981. He served as the director of the Museum of Paleontology (1973-81), director of the Museum of Zoology (1998-00 and 2001-02), and director of the Herbarium (1999-03). Smith retired from active faculty in 2003.
Jerry’s classes bridged the fields of evolutionary biology and earth history with his primary field of study being the evolution of North American freshwater fishes. He had a particular interest in Cenozoic fossils from the northwestern United States, and integrated paleontological evidence with data on living species to address questions relating to rates of evolution, speciation, biogeography, and conservation. Prior to his retirement, he chaired or co-chaired 23 doctoral committees, and authored or co-authored 82 research papers, 3 books, and numerous other publications. Jerry added substantially to this in his two decades as faculty emeritus. Smith was among the first to apply quantitative methods to the analysis to fish biogeography, phylogenetic history, morphometrics, and rates of evolution. He was a pioneer in environmental reconstruction using stable isotopes of annual growth rings in fish otoliths. Smith continued his research until the last couple of months before his death. This wove together many threads of his life work, including documenting the effects of hybridization on fish evolution and challenging assumptions about the inference of evolutionary trees using mitochondrial DNA.
During his life, Jerry was widely recognized for his outstanding work. He inspired dozens of graduate students at the University of Michigan and numerous research collaborators. Jerry provided service and leadership to many scientific organizations including the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists, which honored him with the first-ever Joseph Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award in 2013. Anne Curzan, Dean of the College and Literature, Science, and the Arts at U-M summarized these accomplishments: "Jerry received many accolades for his passionate research on the evolution of fishes, both during his lifetime and posthumously, and I strongly believe that mentoring scholars throughout his lengthy teaching career must have been among his proudest achievements. It is not hard to imagine the pride he had in the Museum of Paleontology’s dedication to providing scholars with an invaluable research tool—the ability to physically examine specimens." Those collections-based resources represent one of Jerry’s most concrete contributions to the Museum of Paleontology. Over his decades of research, Smith collected, received, or managed the acquisition of nearly 600 drawers of fish material, likely totaling over a quarter of a million individual fossil specimens. Among these are several holotypes.
Jerry’s impact on his students is particularly noteworthy. “One of Jerry's strengths was his uncanny ability to see a biological data set--whether ecological, genetic, fossil, or whatever, and instantly perceive that there were some questions to be asked and potential answers that could be tested,” notes Ralph Stearley, a student of Jerry’s (PhD 1990) and professor emeritus at Calvin University. “In many cases, these answers had direct application to the conservation of rare and endangered fishes and the aquatic systems that they inhabit.” Jerry’s legacy of mentorship lives on in those he taught. “Jerry is the reason I ended up in academia,” recalls John Whitlock, Associate Professor at Mount Aloysius College and former Smith student (MSc 2005, PhD 2010). “Through him, I learned how to be a scientist - not just how to do science, but how to be a colleague, how to help students grow and learn, and how to be a positive contributor to our academic community. I think about him every time I have to advise a student, to be honest.”
Next of kin have asked for donations in Jerry’s memory be made to the George Junne Fieldwork Internship Award Fund (account 337670). Established by Jerry Smith and Catherine Badgley, the fund supports students from underrepresented backgrounds in accompanying Michigan paleontologists on fieldwork.