AMHERST, Mass. - A major gift to the University of Massachusetts has established the Jane Hallenbeck Bemis Fund for Research in Natural History. The $700,000 gift, from the late mother of biology Prof. William "Willy" Bemis, was announced at a Dec. 12 reception showcasing a series of significant 50-million-year-old fossils donated to the University by the Bemis family.
Bemis is an ichthyologist, or an expert in fish anatomy and evolution. His work was recently detailed by in the New Yorker magazine (Oct. 19), in an article written by literary journalist John McPhee, who attended the event.
"The establishment of the Jane Hallenbeck Bemis Fund reminds us how important it is to connect understanding of ancient specimens with the new understandings achievable with genetic technology," said Linda Slakey, dean of the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics. "The preservation and study of fossils and specimens of all kinds of organisms is an essential part of achieving a full understanding of the richness of the living world."
Jane Hallenbeck Bemis was a Radcliffe alumna who earned a master’s degree and learned the Japanese language at the University of Michigan, before working in intelligence during and following World War II. After an extraordinary career, she married William Hammel Bemis and raised three children.
Prof. Bemis recalled his parents’ influence on his life when he delivered a eulogy for his mother last summer: "We built greenhouses, raised dogs, collected rocks, coins, fossils, marine invertebrates, stamps - just name it, we probably collected it sometime or another. We read books on every conceivable subject, learned to weave Navajo rugs, watched the stars, studied flower arranging, pored over maps, yearned for successful moon missions, and translated our Latin homework on the kitchen table. We were also trained to understand the value of becoming an authority on Something, whatever Something might be. I still think this is a good strategy."
Bemis’s mother moved to Amherst in 1991, and provided a profound source of encouragement for him in his work, he said. Along with spending many hours translating his technical research papers into foreign languages, she would "listen patiently and debrief me," offering insights on various obstacles and issues that arose. "This endowment will support research in natural history as a cornerstone of the University of Massachusetts Museum of Natural History," said Prof. Bemis, the museum’s director. "We are hoping to build the museum through contributions of private and public funding."
The gift is part of Campaign UMass, a comprehensive campaign to raise $125 million in five years, enlist advocates, and enhance the image of the University.
Academic interest at the Dec. 12 reception centered around a series of fossils from extinct Fossil Lake in southwestern Wyoming. The area is known geologically as the Fossil Butte member of the Green River formation. The now-arid lake bed, roughly 15 miles wide by 70 miles long, offers "an incredible array of beautifully preserved fossils, in slabs of limestone," Bemis said.
Lance Grande, of the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, with whom Bemis collaborates in studies of fossil and living fishes, writes of the area: "Beautifully preserved organisms - from pollen to palm fronds, stingrays, and thirteen-foot crocodiles - allow us to glimpse a time when this now-arid expanse was warm, watery and lush. … Paleontologists refer to mother lodes of fossilized flora and fauna as ‘Lagerstatten,’ and the Fossil Butte deposits represent one of the richest Lagerstatten in the world."
Bemis said: "The importance of the Green River locality cannot be overemphasized. It yields some of the best-preserved plant, insect, and vertebrate fossils of any locality in the world and offers unique insights into life in North American lakes and lakeside ecosystems of 50 million years ago. Thus, specimens from the Green River formation are cornerstones for many types of research in natural history."