In Memory of David Kirtley

Kevin J. Eckelbarger KevinE at
Thu Jul 3 10:33:51 EST 1997

        I was distressed to learn of the recent death of David Kirtley. Dave
and I were colleagues at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Inst. in Ft. Pierce,
Florida during the 1970's and we shared a laboratory and office for several
years. He was in many ways a mentor and he helped stimulate my interest in
polychaete biology. We conducted research together and we spent endless
hours in the field collecting sabellariid polychaetes. He was without a
doubt a very unusual and unique fellow.

        In many ways, Dave was responsible for getting me my first research
job. I was writing my Ph.D. dissertation at Northeastern University (Boston)
on the reproductive biology of Nicolea zostericola when the phone rang one
afternoon in 1973. It was Dave Kirtley cheerfully asking if I'd be
interested in a job in Florida studying the biology of sabellariid
polychaetes as part of a collaborative beach erosion project with the Univ.
of Florida. He had been asked to recruit a polychaete biologist and I had
the good fortune to get the call.  As I recall, Dave learned of my work from
my M.A. advisor, Don Reish, but the phone call was almost a random act on
Dave's part. That call changed my life. Dave had actually called D.P. Wilson
in Plymouth to ask him if HE wanted the job! Unfortunately for Harbor
Branch, Wilson preferred England so they got stuck with me. One thing led to
another and I ended up at Harbor Branch sharing a project with Dave for
several years. 

        When I first arrived in Florida, I had not completed my dissertation
and Dave pushed me hard to finish up so we could plunge into sabellariid
biology together. He was finishing his Ph.D. rather late in life so, despite
a great difference in age, we both defended our dissertations just a few
weeks apart. Dave eventually left Harbor Branch in the late 1970's but I
remained for another 18 years and we saw each other off and on. We chatted
on the phone several times in recent years - the last time just a few months
ago. Although I had long since departed the world of sabellariids, he
continued to pick my brain about matters that troubled him. I visited D.P.
Wilson at his home in Plymouth right before his death in the late 1980's and
he wanted to know all about David Kirtley because Dave had exchanged many
letters with him. Wilson was pleased that someone was continuing to do
research on sabellariids and that Dave had taken the time to write an old
man in his final years. Dave was a humble fellow when it came to his
research and he was always careful to give credit to pioneers.  This was
reflected in the "Acknowledgments" of his 1974 dissertation:
        "Should this account of the writer's research prove to be useful to
subsequent workers, the credit must go to those scientists and laymen who,
since at least as long ago as 1711, have made their notes, observations and
insight concerning the modern Sabellariidae and their possible fossil
homologues available to science through publication. It is their devoted
work that forms the scientific basis for this study. Where there are
inadequacies and perhaps mistakes in this synthesis of published accounts
and original research, the writer acknowledges them as his very own"

        Dave Kirtley easily qualified as a "character". My first meeting
with him in 1973 left me wondering what I was getting myself into but as I
got to know him better, I soon discovered that he was a delightful and
complex fellow. On the surface, he seemed to be a little nuts some days and
he was perpetually engaged in mysterious plots and schemes. He was a world
traveler and a bon vivant who had an insatiable curiosity about the natural
world. He also lived life to the fullest and sometimes to excess. When I
first discovered that he was getting his Ph.D. in geology, I assumed he
didn't know much about biology - particularly invertebrates. I was very
wrong. As far as I could tell, Dave was a self-taught biologist but he read
widely and we held endless debates in our office about evolution and
invertebrate biology. Dave opened my eyes to the world of geology and
paleobiology. He had what seemed to be a photographic memory and he could
recite long passages verbatim from obscure works. He had been an Oklahoma
oil field "wild catter" who was familiar with the rough and tumble world of
Oklahoma  "roughnecks". Although he looked like a rogue himself some days -
a huge fellow with a deep voice and sunburn to match - he had a sharp mind
and the field of geology merely served as a backdrop to his real love -
polychaete biology. Invertebrate paleontology was a life long fascination
for him and he was definitely obsessed with the Sabellariidae! He wrote his
dissertation on a desk next to mine ("Geological Significance of the
Sabellariidae" - Florida State Univ., 1974) and I watched him struggle
through endless drawings of tubes and adult specimens. When I bought a new
photomicroscope to study sabellariid larvae and histological sections of
gonads, he began feeding me material to photograph for him. Although he had
no experience with histology, he examined every slide I ever produced from a
sabellariid - and he quickly learned all about their internal morphology.
There were no details too trivial for his eye. I soon found myself learning
from him and I developed a respect for his ideas and opinions. I also
learned a great deal about geology and paleontology by reading all the
literature he regularly dumped in my lap. We shared a 10' x 10' office 
that was so packed with sabellariid specimens from around the planet that 
it was nearly impossible to move!

        Dave was very comfortable with people and I always thought he could
have been a millionnaire if he had gone into used car sales. He had a way
with words, as they say. He was a charmer who could talk you into doing
things you would never consider until he had you cornered. He was very
articulate and was fluent in several languages so he moved easily in foreign
circles. He liked people and he had charisma to burn. He was also a dreamer
and a schemer and he used his natural "people skills" to arm-twist others
into helping him with his various research causes. We both gave hundreds of
talks on sabellariid biology throughout south Florida - mostly to the public
but often to officials who were concerned about beach erosion control. Dave
was passionate about developing new ways to control erosion through
biological means and with the force of his personality, he managed to find
people willing to support him. In his endless quest for research support, he
had dealings with both the high and the mighty - and sometimes the
questionable - in an effort to secure funding for his dream projects. He was
a survivor and he managed to continue his sabellariid research despite a
general lack of interest by others. I admired his persistence and his
infectious enthusiasm for polychaetes.

        I will always remember Dave as something of a father figure in my
formative years following graduate school. He had lived a lot more of life
than I had at that point and his worldly experience was attractive to a dull
Indiana farm boy who was just beginning a career in marine science. It was
perhaps not generally known that Dave had a number of lingering health
problems that periodically forced him from the lab. He suffered from
war-related injuries that caused him great pain some days and he was
supposed to carefully watch his diet - which he rarely did. Dave always
plunged ahead in life and damn the consequences! However, even on days when
he was feeling ill, you could still engage him in a discussion if you had
something new to say about sabellariids. 

        Dave Kirtley made an indelible impression on me and we have all lost
a champion of polychaete biology. Sabellariids never had a better friend. He
loved the following quote (J.W. v. Goethe) from "Faustus", Part I and he
included it in the introduction to his dissertation - it seems appropriate
to repeat it here:

                "How can such hope dwell in one who digs through trash, with
                 eager hands,  and is delighted to find worms?"

Regards to all,

Kevin J. Eckelbarger
Kevin J. Eckelbarger
Darling Marine Center
University of Maine
25 Clark's Cove Rd.
Walpole, Maine 04573

Phone: 207-563-3146 (ext. 203)
Fax: 207-563-3119
e-mail: kevine at

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