Paleontologist and sustainability advocate Bill Berry dies at 79

Paleontologist and sustainability advocate William Berry

Paleontologist and sustainability advocate William B. N. Berry. (A. E. Leviton photo)

Paleontologist William B. N. Berry was a world expert on extinct, 400 million-year-old sea creatures, but he will be perhaps best remembered in the Bay Area as a champion of sustainability and for instilling in his students a concern for the local ecology.

A former director of UC Berkeley’s Museum of Paleontology and a professor of earth and planetary science who served the campus for 53 years, Berry died May 20 of skin cancer and related complications. He was 79.

Berry encouraged his students to get involved in Save the Bay and Save Strawberry Canyon, and always included in his twice yearly introductory environmental class a cleanup of Strawberry Creek, which runs through the campus. He led his undergraduate students in landmark restoration studies of the Tennessee Hollow Watershed in the Presidio of San Francisco, and an environmental studies program he helped launch at the city’s Galileo High School began restoration in the area before the U.S. National Park Service took up the project.

Students in Berry’s environmental science classes went on to promote recycling and waste reduction on campus and were instrumental in pushing the UC system to adopt an aggressive sustainability policy.

In 2005, he was honored at a campus-wide Sustainability Summit for “exploring environmental issues with generations of UC Berkeley students” and “giving students the tools and inspiration to think about problems from a sustainability standpoint and fostering a culture of sustainability and forward-thinking design.”

“In his research, his teaching and his service, the unifying theme was getting out into the natural world to observe, measure and analyze,” said colleague Carole Hickman, a UC Berkeley paleobiologist and geologist who is now a Professor of the Graduate School in the Department of Integrative Biology. “His colleagues and students remember him fondly for his enthusiasm for ‘hands-on’ science, whether collecting graptolites in the Ordovician or assessing water quality in an urban stream.”

Building a sustainable campus

In the mid-2000s, Berry sought out campus recycling manager Lisa Bauer for help retooling an undergraduate environmental studies class to focus on how students can actively work toward a sustainable society, and in the process doubled its enrollment. Freshman and sophomore seminars he taught became a “seed bed for student sustainability,” Bauer said.

“Bill got it, that the voice people are going to listen to is that of the students,” she said. “Bill was really brilliant in planting the seed, watering it and letting it grow. And it happened. The campus now has a robust sustainability ethic. We have a director of sustainability, regular sustainability summits, a Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on Sustainability. The campus has incorporated into its fabric the things that Bill was working on initially.”

Berry was born in Boston on Sept. 1, 1931, raised in Arlington, Mass., and attended Harvard University, from which he earned an A.B. in 1953 and an A.M. in 1955. While an undergraduate, he was told by geology professor Harry Whittington that nobody in North America was working on graptolites, an extinct group of animals abundant in the world’s oceans between 500 and 400 million years ago. Whittingon suggested that these fossilized animals would be a good subject for a Ph.D. dissertation, and Berry took the advice and started work on graptolites at Yale University. Shell Oil became interested in the stratigraphic aspects of Berry’s studies and funded field work in Texas. When he completed his Ph.D. in 1957, Berry taught for a year at the University of Houston before coming to UC Berkeley in 1958.

Berry’s research on graptolites shed important light on ancient environments, the precise age and correlation of rocks, the processes of evolution and extinction, and the positions of ancient continents and ocean basins, Hickman said.

“As a paleontologist, he was interested in describing the genera and species of graptolites, but he also used these graptolites to figure out the relative ages of Silurian beds around the world,” said former colleague Arthur J. Boucot, a distinguished professor of zoology at Oregon State University in Corvallis. With Boucot focusing on the fossilized seashells of brachiopods and Berry working on graptolites, the pair assembled over a period of three decades Silurian correlation charts that are the basis for more precise charts used by geologists, paleontologists and even oil exploration companies today when dealing with 400- to 440-million-year-old rock.

Berry held a Guggenheim Fellowship at Cambridge University, where he worked on the evolution of Silurian graptolites. His work led to more than 300 published papers, abstracts and books. Over the course of his career, he was an invited panelist, consultant, advisor and organizer at conferences on climate change and urban and environmental planning in California, as well as nationally and internationally.

“I was always amazed at how productive he was and how many things he kept going. He was the ultimate multitasker,” said Doris Sloan, a retired paleontologist who received her Ph.D. at UC Berkeley under Berry and who taught environmental sciences courses for many years on campus.

Paleontologist as both biologist and geologist

Berry served as chair of the Department of Paleontology from 1975 until 1987. At the time, the department was the only free-standing paleontology department in the country. The curriculum trained students equally in geology and biology and required majors and graduate students to acquire expertise in the history of both marine and terrestrial life and in the separate subdisciplines of vertebrate paleontology, invertebrate paleontology, micropaleontology, paleobotany and biostratigraphy.

“During his 33 years in the department, Berry served as an exemplar of the paleontologist as neither biologist nor geologist, but as both,” Hickman said. “His 1968 book, ‘Growth of a prehistoric time scale based on organic evolution,’ served for many years as a supplementary text for courses in introductory geology, evolution, paleontology, stratigraphy, and philosophy and history of science.”

Berry also served as director of the Museum of Paleontology from 1976 until 1987, and as director of the Environmental Sciences Program from 1979 to 1993. During his 12 years as director of the paleontology museum, he broadened its mission by instituting public outreach programs that included collaborations with the Lawrence Hall of Science, participation in a popular annual campus-wide open house, public lectures and visits to local schools.

When the paleontology department was split up in 1989, Berry elected to transfer to the Department of Geology and Geophysics, which eventually became the Department of Earth and Planetary Science (EPS).

“He put real effort into his work with students, and his courses attracted non-majors as well as majors,” Hickman said. “He was one of those professors who enjoyed teaching very large undergraduate classes numbered in the hundreds, as well as smaller, more specialized classes for advanced students.”

In 2010, he taught or mentored more than 1,000 students in EPS – one course enrolled more than 500 students – and nearly 600 more in environmental sciences. It was joked that he taught more students than all the other faculty members of the EPS department combined, said EPS chair Roland Burgmann.

Berry served on numerous campus committees, including for seven years on the committee that allocated space and reviewed planned construction projects. He also chaired the committee that produced UC Berkeley’s Long Range Development Plan in 1988-91.

His favorite committee, however, was the one that awarded undergraduate scholarships such as the Regents’ and Chancellor’s Scholarships, which are given for academic merit. As a member of the committee since 1996, he would find faculty to review more than 2,000 applications each year, and would personally interview hundreds of candidates. His concern about affordability and the need to reward excellence led him to urge more private fundraising to support undergraduate scholarships.

His service extended into the Berkeley community, where he represented UC Berkeley at Berkeley City Council meetings and planning committee meetings. Berry also worked with the United States Geological Survey and held an appointment in the Applied Sciences Division of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Berry was elected a Fellow National of The Explorers Club in 1979. In 1960, he was made a Life Member of the Norwegian Geological Society, and was a member of the General Society Sons of the Revolution, an organization of descendants of those who fought in the Revolutionary War. An avid sports fan, he liked to sit in the sunny student section of Memorial Stadium during Cal football games, was eager to accommodate the schedules of sports team members in his classes, and advised women’s crew for several years.

Berry is survived by his wife of 50 years, Suzanne Spaulding Berry, and son Bradford B. Berry, both of Berkeley.

No memorial service is planned. Donations may be sent to the William B. N. Berry Memorial Research Fund to support graduate students in invertebrate paleontology. Checks can be made payable to the “William B. N. Berry Memorial Research Fund” and sent to the Museum of Paleontology, University of California, Berkeley, 1101 Valley Life Science Building, Berkeley, CA 94720-4780.

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