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Ken Campbell: the palaeontologist whose name lives on in many fossils

Ken in the field with his team from the ANU in 1990 at Gogo (left to right) Dr Peter Pridmore, Prof Ken Campbell, Mrs Val Elder and Dr Richard Barwick. John Long, Author provided

Ken Campbell: the palaeontologist whose name lives on in many fossils

Professor Kenton “Ken” Campbell was an internationally respected authority on Australian geology and palaeontology for more than 50 years. Sadly he passed away last weekend, aged 89 years, and will be farewelled at a funeral in Canberra today.

But Ken’s legacy will live on through his immense body of published scientific work, and also by the many fossil species named in his honour.

In palaeontology you never name anything after yourself. A researcher generally names a new species or genus after someone as a mark of respect for their standing in the scientific community.

Ken had a dozen new species and two new genera (Campbellodus and Campbellicrinus) of fossils named after him by scientists from Australia, the United States, China and Canada.

These include:

  • five shellfish known as brachiopods (Neospirifer campbelli, Fluctuaria campbelli, Kitakamithyris campbelli, Spinulicosta campbelli, Imperiospira campbelli),
  • a coral (Lithostrotion campbelli)
  • a clam (Inaequidens campbelli)
  • a starfish relative known as a crinoid (Campbellicrinus compactus)
  • two trilobites (Primaspis campbelli, Acanthopyge campbelli)
  • three fossil fishes (Kenichthys campbelli, Campbellodus decipiens, Howittacanthus kentoni).
Three fossil fishes named in Ken’s honour. Artwork by the author (left images) and Brian Choo (right), both Flinders University. John Long

A distinguished career

Ken was born in Ipswich, Queensland, on September 9, 1927. He later studied geology at the University of Queensland, where he was encouraged and mentored by the great geologist and palaeontologist Dorothy Hill.

He graduated with a Bachelor of Science with first class honours in 1949. After completing an Master of Science in 1951, he spent the following decade working as a lecturer in geology at the University of New England (UNE) in New South Wales.

During this time he married the love of his life, Daphne Watson, whom he met during his university days in 1951.

He completed his PhD at the University of Queensland in 1958 and was appointed as a senior lecturer at UNE.

In 1961 he was appointed at the Australian National University (ANU) through Professor David Brown and moved his family to Canberra in 1962, settling in the eponymous suburb of Campbell. In 1977 he became head of the Department of Geology; in 1978 he was made Dean of Science and in 1982 was promoted to Professor.

In 1983 he was elected to the Australian Academy of Sciences, which referred to him as “one of Australia’s most distinguished palaeontologists, and certainly the senior palaeontologist in Australia”.

Prof Ken Campbell with student Jen Francis taking lunch in the field near Burrinjuck Dam, NSW. Ken was a consummate teacher and mentor as well as an internationally renowned researcher. Dr Gavin Young, ANU

Early encounters

I first met Ken in 1980 when I was an honours student at Monash University studying Devonian period fishes. At the time my supervisor worked on fossil birds, so I decided I must go to Canberra to meet Devonian fish specialists such as Ken, Dick Barwick and Gavin Young.

Ken and Dick had formed a lifelong working partnership, Ken being the great thinker and Dick the ardent artist and photographer who beautifully brought Ken’s ideas and spectacular fossils to life in their many published papers.

Ken was a kind, gentle and polite scholar, who always had time for a chat over a cup of tea.

As soon as I completed my PhD I was able to take up a postdoctoral position at the ANU, working with him in 1984-85. Our collaboration lasted for the next 25 years, including a memorable field trip collecting fossils at the Gogo sites in northern Western Australia in 1990. Ken had previously worked at Gogo in 1970.

We searched the desert sites every day in the blistering sun and found many spectacular fossils. At night Ken, Dick and the rest of our group sat around the campfire conversing deeply about palaeontology and science, solving many of the world’s problems.

Ken Campbell out in the Gogo in the 1990s. John Long, Author provided

Two major monographs resulted from this trip, which described in intricate detail the anatomy of the Gogo lobe-finned fishes Gogonasus and the dagger-toothed fish Onychodus. The latter fish Ken and I decided to make a new species in honour of local Bunaba freedom fighter Jandemarra, as Onychodus jandemarrai.

Ken’s career as a palaeontologist began with his dissertation work in Queensland, solving basic industry-related questions. These centred around dating sedimentary rocks using fossil assemblages, and correlating sequences of rock with other sequences far away (called biostratiography).

He achieved this by identifying and describing new species of invertebrate fossils such as corals, trilobites, ammonites (a kind of mollusc) and brachiopods.

Working with David Brown and Keith Crook, Ken coauthored the seminal textbook The Geological Evolution of Australia and New Zealand in 1968. Later in life he turned his eye to questions about evolutionary biology and the fossil record.

Work on ancient lungfish

Once in Canberra Ken began searching for fossils in the Devonian limestones around Taemas-Wee Jasper, near Yass in New South Wales. His discovery of a 400 million-year-old lungfish skull in the mid-1960s changed his research direction from that point.

He became fascinated with fossil lungfishes and their evolution. The limestones of that area contain perfect, 3D-preserved skulls of the oldest known lungfishes. Ken’s detailed studies of Australian fossil fishes described many new species from Taemas and Gogo, and provided some of the first detailed studies into how dental tissues first evolved.

A few of Prof Ken Campbell’s many scientific publications that have made a major impact on our thinking about Australian geology and international palaeontology. John Long

Much of this work was a collaboration with Professor Moya Smith of Guys Medical School, London. Their detailed papers revealed that there was much experimentation in the evolution of tissues, demonstrating that Devonian lungfishes had many different kinds of dentine in their teeth, and that some could even remodel their tissues through life.

In later years Ken applied advanced techniques such as micro-CT scanning to study the histology and sensory systems of these ancient fishes.

A travelling man

Ken ventured far and wide to study fossils. In 1957 his award of a Nuffield Dominion Travelling fellowship led him to spend time in Cambridge University, in England, working with renowned trilobite specialist Harry Whittington.

In 1965 he was funded by a United States science foundation award to work at Harvard University studying trilobites.

In 1973 he received a NATO award to study fossil arthropods in Norway, and in 1981 visited Chicago to study fossil lungfishes as a guest of the Field Museum’s travelling scientist program.

Prof Ken Campbell (left) and his team of collaborators and ex-students at the ANU in 2007 (second left to right) Lynne Bean, Dick Barwick, Brian Choo, John Long and Gavin Young. John Long

Ken was a religious man, in later life he became an elder of the Presbyterian Church in the ACT. Although he held deep views about his faith, he never let his personal beliefs get in the way of his research on fossils and evolution.

He was recognised for his contributions by many accolades. These include winning the Mawson Medal of the Australian Academy of Science in 1986, and receiving the Raymond C. Moore Medal of the Paleontological Society in 2012, being the only Australian living in this country to have been given the award.

His most enduring legacy will be through his many students who have gone on to continue research in palaeontology and geology. There are too many to list here, but they know who they are and the contribution he made to their lives, both as a friend and professionally.

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