Skip to main content.

Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
{search_item}

Senior Scientist Emeritus and Emeritus Curator of Bryozoa, Department of Paleobiology

Cheetham in his office at Louisiana State University, 1963, with bryozoan illustrations for a paper with Philip Sandberg. Credit: Photo courtesy of Dr. Alan Cheetham.
Cheetham in his office at Louisiana State University, 1963, with bryozoan illustrations for a paper with Philip Sandberg. Credit: Photo courtesy of Dr. Alan Cheetham.

Alan H. Cheetham was born in El Paso, Texas. After spending his first two years in Chihuahua, Mexico, he grew up in Taos, New Mexico; there he cultivated an early interest in chemistry and geology when his father and grandfather became involved in an effort to revive an old gold mine in the mountains north of town. While an undergraduate at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, he became fascinated with the marine invertebrate fossils that he encountered while doing field work for his senior thesis in the mountains of central New Mexico. Upon graduating, he went to Louisiana State University (LSU) for his master’s degree, pursuing his new interest in paleontology and invertebrate zoology. He continued teaching at LSU while completing his doctorate in geology and paleontology at Columbia University as one of the first students awarded a National Science Foundation (NSF) fellowship in a national competition. He was again awarded an NSF fellowship for a year at the Natural History Museum in London in 1961-62. In 1964-65, he taught as a guest professor at the University of Stockholm in Sweden, before coming to the Smithsonian Institution in 1966.

Cheetham’s research concerns Bryozoa, small, aquatic invertebrates—with an appearance that ranges from moss-like to miniature coral-like—which reproduce both sexually and by budding. Budding produces clones of genetically identical individuals that ordinarily remain physically connected within an aggregate, called a colony, but can become separated to produce new colonies, similar to those formed sexually. Colonies can be free living, or in the form of encrusting sheets, or erect branching miniature tree-like forms attached to stones, aquatic plants, or other invertebrates. Fossilized skeletons of these animals occur profusely in many marine sedimentary deposits dating as far back as the Ordovician Period, almost 500 million years ago. As a consequence of their extensive fossil record a

nd diversity of form, they have proven important in deciphering details of rates and modes of evolution, as well as reconstructing interrelationships of organisms in ancient marine environments.

It was while he was at Louisiana State University, in the heart of the Gulf Coast region, that Cheetham’s focus turned to the interval of the bryozoan fossil record to which he would devote his career: the Cenozoic Era, covering the last 65 million years, during which the group called Cheilostomata, or cheilostomes, became the dominant Bryozoa, as they remain today. Although much work had been done on this group in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was far from complete and, in some cases, based on outmoded principles.

Cheetham’s work on the Bryozoa from Eocene deposits (approximately 40 million years old) in Florida, Alabama, and Mississippi, published in 1963, and on those from deposits of equivalent age in southern England, published in 1966, qualified him to be one of the last curators hired under the National Oceanographic Program, initiated under the Kennedy administration in anticipation of a need for specialists on groups of organisms likely to become available for study in material collected on and under the ocean floor by a variety of projects. Particularly exciting to paleontologists was the Deep Sea Drilling Project designed to extract extensive cores through sediments under the deep ocean with technologies then only recently developed. The results would not only help in understanding ocean history, but also provide fossils not previously accessible for study.

Cheetham in his office at the Museum, 1969. Credit: Photo courtesy Dr. Alan Cheetham.
Cheetham in his office at the Museum, 1969. Credit: Photo courtesy Dr. Alan Cheetham.

Over the course of his career in the National Museum of Natural History’s Department of Paleobiology, Cheetham authored and edited a number of book-length publications, including the textbook Fossil Invertebrates (with R. S. Boardman and A. J. Rowell), as well as numerous journal articles and book chapters. He served as advisor to doctoral and post-doctoral students, both at the Smithsonian and in universities. During his time at the University of Stockholm in the mid-1960s, he convened a gathering of experts on Bryozoa from across Europe to found the International Bryozoology Association, a group that has met every three years since, and for which some of his students have served as president, as he had during the association’s formative years.

Since 1990, he has been active with the Panama Paleontology Project, a project to collect and document fossils from ancient deposits on both sides of the Central American isthmus and use them in research on evolutionary and environmental changes over time. And since 1996, he has been the coordinator of bryozoan contributors for the Neogene Marine Biota of Tropical America, an online database of Tropical American biodiversity from the last 25 million years. With Dr. Jeremy Jackson, co-founder of the Panama Paleontology Project, Cheetham has been involved in a series of studies—based in large part on material from these two sources—that have tested the controversial evolutionary theory of punctuated equilibrium. Their results have proven interesting to both evolutionary biologists and paleontologists and are now included in textbooks on evolution as well as on principles of paleontology.

Cheetham in his office at the Museum, 1969. Credit: Photo courtesy Dr. Alan Cheetham.
Cheetham (left) receiving the Raymond C. Moore Medal for Excellence in Paleontology from society president John Armentrout at the Annual Meeting of the Society for Sedimentary Geology, Dallas, April 1997. Credit: Photo courtesy of Dr. Alan Cheetham.
An active member of many scientific societies and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, he has been recognized with the Paleontological Society Medal (2001) and the Raymond C. Moore Medal for Excellence in Paleontology (1997). Alan and his wife Marjorie have been retired and living in Santa Fe, New Mexico, since 2002. He nevertheless continued to work with his colleagues at the Museum, up until the time his last paper was published in 2007.

Images

Alan Cheetham (standing to right) and fellow LSU students excavating a Pleistocene bear skeleton near Natchez, Mississippi, January 1951. Credit: Photo courtesy of Dr. Alan Cheetham. Cheetham (right) with Philip Sandberg and Patricia Cook on the roof of the Natural History Museum, London, spring 1962. Credit: Photo courtesy of Dr. Alan Cheetham.
Cheetham addressing the first conference of the International Bryozoology Association, in San Donato Milanese, Italy, in August 1968. Credit: Photo courtesy of Dr. Alan Cheetham. Cheetham attending a seminar at the Museum by Patricia Cook of the Natural History Museum, London (standing), with his NMNH bryozoan colleagues (clockwise from left): Richard Boardman, Osborne Nye, Jr., (Cheetham), Raman Singh, Olgerts Karklins, and Gary Gautier (in the foreground), spring 1969. Credit: Photo courtesy of JoAnn Sanner.
Cheetham with Erhardt Voigt of the University of Hamburg at the Second Conference of the International Bryozoology Association, Durham, England, September 1971. Credit: Photo courtesy of Dr. Alan Cheetham. Cheetham (center), with (left to right) Robert Pohowsky, Marjorie Cheetham, Philip Sandberg, and Thomas Schopf at the Third Conference of the International Bryozoology Association, Lyon, France, September 1974. Credit: Photo courtesy of Dr. Alan Cheetham.
Cheetham with Judith Winston (left) and Patricia Cook (right) at the Twelfth Conference of the International Bryozoology Association, Dublin, Ireland, July 2001. Credit: Photo courtesy of Dr. Alan Cheetham. Cheetham receiving the Paleontological Society Medal from society president Patricia Kelley at the Annual Meeting of the Geological Society of America, Boston, November 2001. Credit: Photo courtesy of Dr. Alan Cheetham.
Cheetham at the time of his retirement, Bethesda, Maryland, summer 2001. Credit: Photo courtesy of Dr. Alan Cheetham. Cheetham at home with his wife Marjorie in Santa Fe, New Mexico, July 2007. Credit: Photo courtesy of Dr. Alan Cheetham.

[ TOP ]