Dear Members of the Paleontological Society:
Dr. John Pojeta, Jr., 81, Scientist Emeritus at the United States Geological Survey, passed away on July 6, 2017,
at Casey House, Rockville, Maryland. John was renowned for his work on the origins and early evolution of molluscan classes; his research focused primarily on the evolution, phylogeny, biostratigraphy, and paleoecology of Cambrian and Ordovician pelecypods, chitons, and rostroconchs. His research contributions to paleontology were matched by his tireless service to the profession, in which his wife of 60 years, Mary Lou, avidly joined him.
A native of New York, John received his B.S. in biology from Capital University in Bexley, Ohio, and completed his M.S. (1961) and Ph.D. (1963) degrees at the University of Cincinnati under the supervision of Kenneth Caster. From 1963 until his retirement in 1994 John was employed by the USGS, initially as geologist and eventually as Chief of the Branch of Paleontology and Stratigraphy (1989-1994). During his more than 30 years at the USGS, John developed collaborations worldwide; he served as USGS-Australian Bureau of Mineral Resources exchange scientist and as visiting scientist to the New Zealand Geological Survey, and he participated in field expeditions in the Ellsworth Mountains of West Antarctica and in Senegal. He also served as consultant on living mollusks (involving extensive SCUBA work at Eniwetok Atoll and in Belize) for the Department of Paleobiology at the U.S. National Museum, where he remained a research associate until his death. In his spare time, John developed an off-campus program for George Washington University, teaching introductory geology to nontraditional students. He was frequently sought as a lecturer at institutions across the country and worldwide, including in Sweden, New Zealand, Australia, China, and Mexico.
Much of what we know about the early history of mollusks comes from John’s work, including many papers with long-time collaborator Bruce Runnegar. The importance of John’s publications is apparent from such titles as “Rostroconchia: a new class of bivalved mollusks,” “Fordilla troyensis Barrande: The oldest known pelecypod,” “Origin and diversification of the Mollusca,” and “The origin and early taxonomic diversification of pelecypods.” John published nearly 150 papers, not only on Paleozoic mollusks but also on paleontological techniques and collecting, including issues with collecting on public lands. His scientific contributions have been recognized by Fellowship in the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Geological Society of America, and the Paleontological Society. He received medals from the Geological Society of China and the Chinese Ministry of Geology and Mineral Resources, and Honorary Membership in the Association of Australasian Paleontologists for contributions to Australian paleontology. Eleven genera and species of mollusks, as well as Pojeta Peak in the Ellsworth Mountains of West Antarctica, have been named for him—a fraction of the number of taxa he has named for others!
John’s expertise and attention to detail made him an oft-sought member of high-visibility committees. For example, he served on several committees for the National Academy of Sciences/National Research Council, including the Committee on Guidelines for Paleontological Collecting, and on the North American Commission on Stratigraphic Nomenclature, the Advisory Committee for the Treatise on Invertebrate Paleontology, and the USGS Geological Names Committee, which he chaired.
John gave willingly of his time and energy to professional service and was actively involved in nearly two dozen professional organizations, serving as an officer for half a dozen of them. He was most significantly involved with the Paleontological Research Institution, for which he served as Vice-President and President of the Board of Trustees, and the Paleontological Society. John’s extensive service to the PS included positions as Book Review Editor, Business Manager for Special Studies, and the PS Fellows Committee. John served as Paleontological Society Secretary from 1982–1988, followed by terms as President-Elect, President, and Past-President. For many paleontologists, John Pojeta, with Mary Lou by his side, was the face of paleontology; for 25 years the two of them organized and staffed the PS exhibit booth at national and regional GSA meetings, the North American Paleontological Convention, and other professional meetings. John worked tirelessly to promote his vision of “The Paleontological Society as the vehicle for the profession to use for improving its lot in American science” (articulated in his presidential address; Journal of Paleontology 65:347-354). In recognition of John and Mary Lou’s unstinting service, the PS instituted the Pojeta Award (paleosoc.org/grants-and-awards/pojeta-award), for “exceptional professional or public service by individuals or groups in the field of paleontology above and beyond that of existing formal roles or responsibilities.” Fittingly, John and Mary Lou were the first recipients.
John’s official roles represent only a part of his contributions to paleontology. Although John could seem stern — especially when debating such topics as whether the appropriate terminology should be “pelecypod” or “bivalve” — his generosity towards and support of other paleontologists were unsurpassed. His friends and colleagues recall with gratitude his wisdom and sense of humor as a mentor and peer; his encouragement of new researchers; his helpfulness in introducing graduate students to the Smithsonian collections; his generosity in providing fossils to augment the teaching collections of young faculty members; his outreach to amateurs and professional collectors; and the amazing hospitality he and Mary Lou showed to paleontologists visiting D.C. Their annual Christmas letter was a veritable who’s who of paleontology, as the Pojetas listed, month by month, the numerous colleagues that they had hosted at their home. John Pojeta touched the lives of many of us by living the vision he had for the advancement of our science, and we are the better for it.
John is survived by his wife Mary Lou, his daughter Kim (T.J. Oakes), son John (Christine Linn), six grand-children, two great-grand-children, and his brother Martin. A celebration of his life will be held at a future date. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to the Paleontological Society, the Paleontological Research Institution, or Casey House hospice of Rockville, Maryland.
Dr. Patricia H. Kelley
Professor Emerita, University of North Carolina Wilmington