Stephen Jay Gould, Cambridge, Massachusetts, November 4, 1983. A paleontologist and geologist by training, Dr. Gould (b. 1941) possessed the rarest of combinations: a brilliant mind and an engaging literary talent. I photographed him in his office at Harvard. Behind him is a painted tyrannosaurus and on his desk, “my beloved fossil land snails, who lie still, never complain, look beautiful, and teach us the numerous pathways of evolution.” Legend has it that Gould decided to become a paleontologist at the age of five when his father took him to see Tyrannosauras Rex at The American Museum of Natural History.

Two weeks ago, on May 20th, Stephen Jay Gould, the evolutionary theorist, died of cancer at the age of 60. He died at home, in a bed set up in the library of his Soho loft, surrounded by his wife Rhonda, his mother Eleanor, and the many books he loved.

I met Stephen in November of 1983 when I photographed him for the New York Times Magazine. He was living in Cambridge and teaching at Harvard. A year later, I was sitting at my desk in my New York City townhouse and talking with Stephen on the phone. My one-year-old daughter, Lily, was running around in a nearby room, being watched, I thought, by her nanny, when I heard a klunkety, klunkety, klunkety (there were 12 of them) ... KLUNK sound from the nearby stairs followed by a high-pitched wail. I screamed something to the effect of OH MY GOD and ran to see if my darling child was still alive at the base of the steps. She was more scared than hurt and I was a total wreck.

I comforted her — and the young nanny — and eventually returned to my desk. As I sat down I saw that my phone was off the hook; I was too traumatized by the event even to remember that I had been talking on it. I picked it up and was about to return it to its cradle when I noticed that the light was still blinking on the receiver. I said “Hello?” and much to my amazement Dr. Gould was still on the other end of the line, patiently hanging on.

I was still shaky and he calmed me down by explaining the body/weight ratio theory which in its most basic terms is this: the reason most young children survive childhood is because they weigh so little that when they fall on their heads, most of the time they are okay because they aren’t heavy enough to crush their skulls. He went on to tell me that he had written an entire chapter dealing with this very subject in his book, “Ever Since Darwin,” which I happened to have in the bookcase beside my desk. I still have the book and the passage is underlined in red:

“If a child half your height falls down, its head will hit with not half but 1/32 the energy of yours in a similar fall. A child is protected more by its size than by a ‘soft’ head. In return, we are protected from the physical force of its tantrums, for the child can strike with, not half, but only 1/32 of the energy we can muster. I have long had a special sympathy for the poor dwarfs who suffer under the cruel whip of Albert in Wagner’s Das Rheingold. At their diminutive size, they haven’t a chance of extracting, with mining picks, the precious mineral that Alberich demands, despite the industrious and incessant leitmotif of their futile attempt.”

I have always felt that this incident perfectly exemplified this kind and prudent paleontologist who died last week. What he said made total sense and he was able to distill some very fancy scientific knowledge in terms that a non-scientific mind could grasp. Moreover, that he had patiently stayed on the line while all this was going on epitomized the compassion of this remarkable man.

Stephen Jay Gould, at home, writing on his 1920 Smith Corona typewriter.
With his son, Ethan. Stephen loved music, knew the lyrics to every Gilbert & Sullivan song, and for many years sang with a choral group, The Boston Cecilia.

At Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, Dr. Gould kneels in hallway containing 15,000 drawers of fossils. The drawer that is opened holds fossil coral.
Leaving his office, Stephen Gould always delighted in a day’s work of finding out something new about the world which he described as “the greatest joy of my intellectual life.”

March 1, 1997: I was in Cambridge photographing Saul Bellow and his wife, Janis. We were having lunch and I was pleased to see Stephen at a nearby table with his new wife, Rhonda Roland Shearer.
December 21, 2000: This is the last photograph I took of Stephen, shown here with my husband Kurt Vonnegut. I had invited a few friends to visit the spectacular Chinese Calligraphy Exhibition at the Metroplitan Museum of Art. I had recently met the curator of this show, Mike Hearn, and he had kindly offered a private tour.

A memorial service was held at New York University’s Vanderbilt Hall on May 30th. Stephen’s wife, Rhonda and his stepson, Jade Allen, are shown above in the courtyard greeting Niles Eldredge. Gould and Eldredge both argued that evolutionary change in the fossil record came in fits and starts as opposed to a steady process of slow change.
Oliver Sacks & Niles Eldredge, friends and colleagues of Stephen’s, both spoke at the memorial service. Dr. Sacks met Gould in 1990, shortly after reviewing Gould’s “A Wonderful Life.” Dr. Eldredge, a paleontologist at The American Museum of Natural History in New York, met Stephen in 1963 as an undergraduate at Columbia and later worked with him out of “a mutual desire to strengthen paleontology’s position at the ‘High Table’ of evolutionary theory.”

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All of the Roman families, at least the Praetorians, used to hang up wax masks of their ancestors in the front hallways of their homes. It was thought that these masks could connect you with your deceased relatives. Likewise, over the ages, many death-bed scenes have been immortalized by artists and photographers. For example, at The Metropolitan Museum, there is a photograph of Marcel Proust on his deathbed taken by Man Ray who was summoned to the scene by their mutual friend, Jean Cocteau. Similarly, at an exhibition I love, “Greuze the Draftsman,” presently on view at The Frick Collection, the artist has clearly borne witness in his work to a variety of deathbed tableaus.

When Stephen Gould died, his wife invited artist Steven Assael and sculptor Eliot Goldfinger to come to the Soho loft. Assael worked in pencil to render his drawings, and Goldfinger used plaster to make a deathmask as well as a cast of Stephen’s right hand.


All photographs are copyrighted by Jill Krementz and may not be reproduced without written permission from the photographer. 6/2/02.