KNOXVILLE — Paul W. Parmalee, University of Tennessee professor emeritus and a pioneer in the scientific field of zooarchaeology, died today of complications from a stroke. He was 79.
Dr. Paul Parmalee Parmalee was recruited from the Illinois State Museum to the UT faculty in 1973 by famed UT anthropologist Dr. William Bass. Parmalee took on the additional role of director of McClung Museum from 1977 to 1989, when he retired from the classroom, but not from work. Parmalee increased his research and publication schedule, co-authoring in 1998 the definitive book The Freshwater Mussels of Tennessee, published by UT Press.
Parmalee was writing up his latest fieldwork at his desk in his museum office when he suffered the stroke several weeks ago.
“UT was unimaginably fortunate to have attracted Paul Parmalee to its faculty. His stature in the field has brought to the university outstanding students and world-renown scientists, and to McClung Museum a priceless collection of freshwater mussel specimens recognized as the best collection in the eastern U.S.,” said Chancellor Loren Crabtree. “Such a valuable professional and beloved individual is impossible to replace, but we are certain that the power of his positive presence will continue to inspire generations of scientists.”
Born in Mansfield, Ohio in 1926, his interest in studying plants and animals started in boyhood. He joined the Army in 1944 at age 18, serving in the Philippines and Japan. Then his formal education began at Ohio University where he earned a bachelor’s degree in zoology in 1948. Then he earned a master’s in ecology from the University of Illinois in 1949 and a doctorate degree wildlife management from Texas A&M in 1952.
In 1953, he became curator of zoology for the Illinois State Museum in Springfield. There he established the critical importance of zoological fieldwork at archaeological sites and created interdisciplinary connections to explore the interplay of humans and nature. He became an expert in identifying even the smallest remnants, with special focus on bones, birds and freshwater mussels.
When Parmalee left Illinois for Tennessee in 1973, he was assistant museum director and he had built the best specimen and skeleton collection in the Midwest, according to his colleagues there.
He is preceded in death by his first wife, Barbara Griswold Parmalee, in 1991. Survivors include Parmalee’s wife, Geneva Nail Wyatt Parmalee; son and daughter-in-law, J. David and Elizabeth Parmalee, and granddaughters Katherine and Corinne of Knoxville; daughter and son-in-law, Patrice and Michael Fox, grandson Austin and granddaughter Kelsey of Fairview, Tenn.; daughter and son-in-law Shalee and David Sojka and granddaughter Sophia of Crossville, Tenn.
Preservation of Parmalee’s extensive freshwater mussel collection, about 65,000 specimens, has been assured, according to Jeff Chapman, who is now director of McClung Museum. “The collection will be named The Paul W. Parmalee Malacology Collection, and a fund has been established for its care and support. Chapman said the collection is essential to the work of students, faculty and scientists from the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, the Tennessee Valley Authority and numerous businesses.
Contributions should be made to the McClung Museum, 1327 Circle Park Drive, Knoxville, TN 37996-3200 and designated for the Parmalee Fund.
Parmalee will be interred at Evergreen Cemetery in Camp Point, Ill.
Additional Remembrances from Colleagues
Countless colleagues and friends also assure preservation of Paul Parmalee’s memory. His story begins and ends with people and work that he loved.
Dr. Bonnie Styles, director of the Illinois State Museum (ISM) said that he inspired her as a graduate student to pursue zooarchaeology as a specialty.
“I had the good fortune to study faunal remains from two archaeological sites that he had studied earlier. His identifications and interpretations have withstood the test of time,” she said, “I loved his sense of humor and the twinkle in his eye. He was so vibrant. You just knew when he was about to tell a joke.”
Another long-time friend and colleague, emeritus ISM director Dr. Bruce McMillan, said Parmalee’s career was characterized by creativity and precision.
“He had an eclectic, holistic approach yet advocated careful and accurate identifications and the need for comprehensive comparative collections to help researchers in all the natural sciences, McMillan said.
“I first met Parmalee in 1961 when he was working on Tick Creek Cave, an important faunal site in central Missouri. He was an outstanding scientist with an indefatigable spirit, constantly working and pushing forward,” McMillan said.
Orvetta Robinson, retired librarian for the Illinois State Museum met Parmalee when he joined the ISM staff in 1953.
“Paul’s friendship and support during our years of association at the Illinois State Museum contributed more than he knew to my self confidence and growth in my position. He was always there for me with advice or assistance, should I ask, and with unwavering friendship in recent years as well,” she said.
His associations at the University of Tennessee proved to be just as solid.
Dave Etnier, UT emeritus professor of zoology, and Parmalee bonded quickly. Etnier came in 1967, Parmalee six years later.
“We were both Midwestern. Both naturalists, both duck hunters, both a little bit unconventional. I’m from Minnesota, and Paul spent much of his time in the Midwest. We hit it off right away. He’s the best hire we’ve ever made. He’s done so much for our university. He was prouder of his students and what they’ve done than of his own extensive publications record. He has sent out zoologists to the rest of the world, my son Michael being one of them.”
Art Bogan, coauthor with Parmalee of the Tennessee mussels book, was Parmalee’s first doctoral student at Tennessee, graduating in 1980. He spent 12 years at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia before becoming research curator of invertebrates at North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh.
Bogan says while working at UT he and Parmalee prepared skeletons ranging in size from a little darter to a full grown ostrich.
“Dr. Parmalee had a feel for the bones, recognizing subtle differences that are hard to quantify. When Paul was asked why he had identified a bone as a duck he would reply ‘because it looks like a duck.’
“He was happiest collecting clams, or mussels. He bought a used, pink, flat bottom boat one time, and named it Sissypoo, even though he repainted it green. We had great fun taking it out onto Chickamauga Reservoir even on cold, winter days. He had to be reminded when it got dark that it was time to stop for the day,” Bogan said.
Bogan said Parmalee was the quintessential collector, his academic skills extending beyond the realm of zoology to patent medicine bottles, Civil War stamps, and even antique meat grinders.
“He instilled in his students the responsibility to publish, to share knowledge. Even now, if I’m not writing, I feel like I’m off track.”
Gerry Dinkins, another former student and co-owner of Dinkins Biological Consulting, accompanied Dr. Parmalee on fieldtrips in recent years. In fact, they had another one planned. Dinkins was a 1980 UT grad in wildlife and fisheries and earned a master’s in ecology in 1984.
“The day before his stroke I was in his office with some stuff to puzzle over. We were looking forward to a survey in the Elk River of W. Va. We’d done a survey in the New River last year. When I visited Paul at the hospital during the last weeks of his life, we sat and listened to opera,” Dinkins said.
“Dr. Parmalee was so generous with his time and expertise. Bring him any kind of shell, most common or most rare, anything from pristine to an old relic, and he would always treat it as a real find.
“When my professional relationship began with Paul I had just moved back to Tennessee and became very busy conducting surveys for endangered aquatic species. We began collaborating, and I never ceased to be amazed at the depth of his knowledge. He was truly one of the giants in this field. UT was so, so lucky to have him,” Dinkins said.
Another zoologist keenly influenced by Paul Parmalee’s work and friendship is Dr. Don Grayson, professor at the University of Washington in Seattle.
“When I was in graduate school at Oregon, I looked to the work of two people to provide models for what I wanted to do: Paul Parmalee and John Guilday, paleontologist at Carnegie Museum of Natural History. They often co-authored publications. I read everything they had ever written, and still return to their work routinely. I never met Guilday, but I was fortunate enough to meet Paul at an archaeology society meeting in the early 80s. He and I quickly became friends, but that doesn’t distinguish me from hundreds of others: It was hard, maybe impossible, to know Paul without being his friend.
“Although Paul was important to me professionally as a role model, it isn’t Paul the zooarchaeologist that I will miss nearly as much as Paul the person. In addition to being a consummate scholar, Paul was one of the most interesting, most enjoyable people I have ever met. I was lucky not to have been a clam within his collecting radius, though if I had been, I would have ended up well-labeled and perfectly curated. My most fervent wish for Paul is that when he arrives where he is going, there will be birds to watch, clams and stamps to collect, cigars to smoke, and maybe even some of his other favorite activities as special dispensation for a life well and importantly loved,” Grayson said.
Soon after he arrived in Tennessee in 1973, Parmalee persuaded ISM archaeologist Dr. Walter Klippel to join him at UT. The scientific community has greatly benefited from the partnership. Klippel, a UT anthropology professor, and Parmalee have co-authored many publications over the years.
Perhaps more importantly, said Klippel, “Paul was able to convince me of the importance of systematic collections in zooarchaeology, and after he assumed directorship of McClung Museum we collaborated on a successful National Science Foundation proposal to further increase the usefulness of UT’s vertebrate skeletal collection in anthropology.
“Paul’s practical approach to scholarship was to integrate publication activities with a constant effort to improve comparative collections. He has left the university with one of the best research/teaching collections in North America. We will, however, sorely miss his sage advice when it comes time to identify those difficult to identify specimens that he was so willing to assess for colleagues, students, and the general public,” Klippel said.
Dr. James Purdue, another long-time associate from Illinois, said, “I had the good fortune to follow Paul Parmalee as a curator of zoology at Illinois State Museum. Paul was a good friend and colleague and was a pleasure to work with. He had a quick intellect and an even better sense of humor. The academic institutions he served, namely the Illinois State Museum and the University of Tennessee, are better places because of Paul’s contributions. Many of us have lost a good friend, but Paul’s legacy will live for decades to come.”
Purdue was an editor, with Klippel and Styles, of a 1991 book, or festschrift, containing 31 scientific papers Parmalee’s friends and colleagues published as tribute to his career. They surprised him with their plan at the Sixth International Conference of the International Council for Archaeozoology held in 1990 at the Smithsonian Institution.
Dr. Parmalee’s response to the honor sums up his extraordinary life, says Art Bogan. “I thought I was just having fun,” Parmalee said.
Contact: Beth Gladden (865-771-1284 or 865-974-9008)
Linda Weaver (865-974-5181)