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February 10, 2020

‘An Advocate for Science’: A Reflection on Former President Frank H.T. Rhodes’ Scientific Legacy at Cornell

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Although widely known for serving as Cornell’s ninth president from 1977 to 1995, the late Frank H.T. Rhodes was also a reputable paleontologist.

Prof. Warren Allmon, earth and atmospheric sciences- who used to frequently host Rhodes as a guest lecturer in his paleobiology course – discussed Rhodes’ legacy in the scientific community with The Sun.

Rhodes, who died on Feb. 3, was an invertebrate paleontologist, studying the fossils of species without backbones. He specialized in conodonts, extinct microfossils that have a tooth-like structure. According to Allmon, conodonts are important for identifying the ages of rocks during the Paleozoic Era, which was 251 to 542 million years ago.

Yet what made the former president’s research so unique was the fact that he researched conodonts at a time when their origins were unknown. Allmon said that Rhodes was able to conduct extensive conodont research despite not knowing what kind of organism it was.

“Nobody knew what kind of animal they were until very, very recently in 1983,” Allmon said. “By this time, [Rhodes] was no longer an active researcher.”

When Rhodes visited the paleobiology course as a guest lecturer, Allmon’s students were able to learn about how paleontology research has evolved over the past several decades.

“They got to see what a classical conodontologist would do in the 1950s and 60s,” Allmon said.

While he was University president, Rhodes’ research focus shifted to Charles Darwin’s work. Allmon said that Rhodes took many summers off as president to do research on Darwin.

During research excursions, the ninth president published widely cited papers in which he argued for the importance of punctuated equilibrium — a theory that states speciation occurs rapidly in between longer periods of stability.

Along with publishing research papers, Rhodes also wrote books on evolution, including The Evolution of Life and Origins: The Search for Our Prehistoric Past, both of which address the evolution of living things and their environments.

Although a successful paleontologist, one of Rhodes’ goals as president was to dedicate more time and resources into all disciplines at Cornell — not just geology.

“Frank was such an honorable man that he went to lengths to not favor his old discipline,” Allmon said.

Rhodes’ tenure saw the expansion of several academic programs — such as the creation of several ethnic studies courses and abroad programs like Cornell Abroad and Cornell in Washington.

Beyond Cornell, Rhodes served as a chair of the National Science Board, was a longtime supporter of Ithaca’s Paleontological Research Institution and narrated the films shown in the city’s Museum of the Earth’s A Journey Through Time exhibit.

For Allmon, Rhodes’ legacy as not only a paleontologist — but also as “an excellent communicator and an advocate for science,” will always be remembered.