Platnick, Norman I.
- Existence: December 30, 1951 - April 8, 2020
Dr. Norman Platnick worked at the American Museum of Natural History from 1973 until his death, in 2020, as Curator Emeritus. Platnick contributed to several fields of zoology and biogeography, much of which is related to spider classification and entomology.
Norman Ira Platnick was born on December 30, 1951, in Bluefield, WV, where he grew up. Getting what he called a ‘precocious start’, Norm became a college freshman at the age of 12, receiving a BS degree at 16, MS at 18, and PhD at 21.
After graduating from Concord in 1968, Norm moved to Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI, where he was advised by Richard Sauer and graduated with a MS in Zoology in 1970, and finally to Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, where he was advised by Herbert Levi, and graduated with a PhD in Biology in 1973. He was appointed Assistant Curator in the AMNH Department of Entomology the same year, received tenure and promotion to Associate Curator in 1977, and promotion to Curator in 1982. He was awarded an endowed chair as Peter J. Solomon Family Curator of Spiders in 1998 and served in that capacity until retiring, whereupon he became Senior Scientist in Residence at the AMNH Division of Invertebrate Zoology (2010–2013).
As an AMNH Curator, Norm took over stewardship of the Collections of Arachnida and Myriapoda from John Cooke, building on the legacy of Willis J. Gertsch to continue developing the spider collection into the world’s largest and most taxonomically comprehensive, a global resource with over a million specimens and 4,000 types. Norm’s arachnological expeditions to Chile, as well as Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Cuba, Ecuador, New Caledonia, New Zealand, and Panama, were supported by $4.3 million in research grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Geographic Society, and other foundations. As Chairman of the Department of Entomology (1987–1994), Norm secured two NSF grants that enhanced ongoing curation of the terrestrial arthropod collections, partially supporting construction of the insect compactor, followed by an instrumentation grant to acquire a scanning electron microscope for the AMNH. He also served as Chair of the Scientific Senate (2006–2008). In addition to his position as Curator at the AMNH, Norm served as adjunct professor at City College, City University of New York (1978–2014), and Cornell University (1988–2014), and as adjunct senior research scientist for the Center of Environmental Research and Conservation at Columbia University (1999–2014).
Norm was a prolific scientist, publishing over 4000 pages in 330 papers, including 37 monographs, six books and two edited volumes over the course of his four-decade career. This exceptional body of work fundamentally affected several fields. His early works, including the influential book ‘Systematics and biogeography: Cladistics and vicariance,’ coauthored with Gareth Nelson, and seminal papers on areas of endemism, species concepts, cladistic analysis of linguistic sequences, and the history and philosophy of systematics, among others, were instrumental in disseminating Hennigian tree-thinking and phylogenetic classification, profoundly influencing systematic biology, historical biogeography, and evolutionary biology more generally.
In arachnology, the study of spiders and their kin, Norm laid the framework of spider classification and the Tree of Life early on, along with introducing new techniques, such as scanning electron microscopy, and character systems, such as spinneret morphology, which forever changed the course of spider systematics. His prodigious monographic revisions and many smaller papers, on most of which he was sole or lead author, added 158 new genera and 2023 new species of spiders (including many novelties such as Neato, Oreo, Queenvic, Notnops, Nyetnops, Taintnops, Tisentnops, Paradysderina righty, and Paradysderina lefty), vastly increasing knowledge of spider diversity on a global scale, and especially the poorly known fauna of the Southern Hemisphere, to currently more than 48,000 species. An authority on at least ten spider families, Norm described taxa in some 50 of the 120 families currently recognized, spanning all three suborders, as well as the arachnid order Ricinulei (hooded tick-spiders), in which he described a new genus and 12 new species. His contributions, together with the World Spider Catalog, which he created as a unified nomenclatural and taxonomic resource, and single-handedly updated annually over the course of two decades, elevated spiders to a unique position. Unlike most other non-vertebrate taxa of comparable diversity, spiders now enjoy a completely up-to-date, online, species-level taxonomic database extending from Linnaeus to the present. In recognition of his contributions, Norm was made Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2003 and received the Pierre Bonnet Award for Devoted Service to the Advancement of Arachnology in 2007, among other honors. Four spider genera, Normplatnicka, Platnickia, Platnickina and Platnicknia (= Modisimus) and 47 species of spiders, other arachnids, and a millipede are named after him.
(Source: Norman I. Platnick (1951–2020) obituary, 2020)