In Memory of David W. Kirtley

Petersen, Mary E. {ZMUC} mepetersen at
Fri Jul 18 18:50:00 EST 1997

Friday, 18 July 1997

Dear Colleagues,

I was at a DANIDA / PMBC BIOSHELF Polychaete Workshop in Phuket, Thailand
when I got the sad news that David W. Kirtley had died.  He was
affiliated with the Florida Oceanographic Society and the Harbor Branch
Oceanographic Museum in Fort Pierce, Florida, but mostly worked from his
home in Vero Beach, Florida.  To say that news of his death came as a
shock and leaves a deep sense of loss is a huge understatement.  Although
I knew that he had health problems, I had heard from David shortly before
I left and his plans for the summer included visits to several museums
and gave no indication that anything was wrong.  At that time he was
perhaps not aware of it himself.

Although I had met David at the 4th International Polychaete Conference
in Angers, France, in 1992, it was not until early 1995, when he sent me
a copy of his monograph on the Sabellariidae that I really got to know
him.  After making sure that this important publication was really
intended for me and not for the library, I wrote and thanked him. This
was the start of a most enjoyable and interesting correspondence during
which he enlightened me about all sorts of things, including those
geological, and quickly became a close and highly valued friend and
colleague.  In the approximately two years that we had been communicating
we managed to discuss - and sometimes solve - problems of all sorts,
ranging from obscure type localities (and sometimes type depositories!)
of sabellariids to the nomenclature of daffodils and jonquils.  He
appeared to have an insatiable appetite for knowledge, and as also noted
by Kevin Eckelbarger, an incredible memory and a well developed sense of

As Kevin pointed out so well, David was a multitalented and highly
unusual person with a curiosity, enthusiasm, and willingness to examine
new ideas - even if he really didn't agree with them - that commanded
admiration and respect.  Despite various problems of health and funding
applications that didn't get funded, David always came through as an
optimist, and not a complainer.  At a stage in life when many others
would be thinking of winding up a research career, David was busily
engaged in exploring new horizons and new ways to make his beloved
sabellariids easier for the rest of us to recognize and identify.  He was
working on an illustrated web page for the genera and also wrote that he
was making a three-dimensional model of a sabellariid to make the true
relationships of the different features easier to understand.  His
enthusiasm was truly infectious; even though sabellariids might be
outside one's present field of interest, I suspect that anyone who came
in contact with David probably began to think they should at least pay
more attention to these beautiful small animals.

When David visited the Zoological Museum in Copenhagen in early 1996, as
part of a study of sabellariids in European museums, part of his visit
overlapped that of Vasily Radashevsky.  To save time I fixed supper for
all three of us at the museum, and we had some wonderful discussions on
all imaginable topics over impromptu meals in the department library.

David was a very conscientious and careful researcher, and while some of
his descriptions may seem brief, it is not because he was superficial,
but rather, perhaps, because he understood the animals so well that he
did not always realize that others of us might have preferred a bit more
information.  At the time of his death, David was collaborating with
several colleagues around the world on new species and genera of
sabellariids.  In his last letter to me he wrote:

>[the collaborators] don't know it, but the main
>reason I've been dragging and dragging my feet in completing some joint
>papers is:  that I need to carefully check (and recheck) the database that
>includes the USNM collection before I can - with a clear conscience and
>to my own satisfaction - publish more new species names.  If I didn't
>know that the specimens are there and it's just a matter of having the
>expense money to go and dig through them then it would be a different
>matter; but since I DO know that I would have a better perception of the
>diagnostic characters and apparent ranges of variability of those features, 

>then I GOT to look!

I think this expresses David's attitude towards research pretty well - to
do the best job possible without shortcuts or compromises.  It's a real
pity that he never got to check the material and more of one that he
couldn't do so and stick around a bit longer to tell us about it.  I'm
sure that there are many of us who join his family in agreeing that his
departure came much, much too soon.  I feel privileged that I had the
opportunity to get to know David better, even if only for a short time. 
It has been a delightful and enriching  experience.  He is already sorely
missed and will not be forgotten.


Mary E. Petersen

Zoological Museum, University of Copenhagen
Universitetsparken 15, DK-2100 Copenhagen O, Denmark
Tel +45-35 32 10 67 --- Fax +45-35 32 10 10
E-mail: mepetersen at

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