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VMNH scientist Richard Hoffman dies at 84
Dr. Richard Hoffman is seen recently inside the Virginia Museum of Natural History’s scientific collections storage area. (Contributed photo)
Tuesday, June 12, 2012
By RYAN BARBER -
Dr. Richard L. Hoffman, curator emeritus of recent invertebrates at the Virginia Museum of Natural History, died Sunday at Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital following a recent heart surgery.
Hoffman, 84, was a world-renowned scientist in the field of myriapodology, which is the branch of science that studies invertebrate animals that have an exoskeleton, a segmented body and jointed appendages, such as millipedes and centipedes. He also was instrumental in founding the Virginia Museum of Natural History (VMNH).
The museum announced Hoffman’s death Monday.
“We lost a true scholar, gentleman and mentor,” said Dr. Joe B. Keiper, executive director of VMNH. “However, his life’s work will inspire us to learn more about the world around us and teach others what we have learned.”
Hoffman was a native Virginian who devoted most of his life to the natural history of Virginia and the southern Appalachians while also earning an international reputation as the leading authority on the world’s milliped fauna, or the variety of millipeds within a specific region and timeframe.
Beginning in 1944 at age 16, he published more than 500 scholarly papers and books, and more than 50 popular articles on such diverse taxa as millipeds, amphibians, reptiles, worms, mollusks, arachnids, beetles and true bugs (a group of insects that includes the louse and bedbug). He described more than 600 new taxa and had nearly 50 taxa named in his honor.
“VMNH has lost an irreplaceable icon,” said VMNH Trustee Pam Armstrong. “Dr. Richard Hoffman was more than an internationally renowned entomologist. He was a passionate advocate for the insect world and took every opportunity to teach children, interns and adults their importance to our existence. Dr. Hoffman was horrified one day when I told him that I was disgusted by roaches and would kill one any chance that presented itself. I’ll never forget that he looked at me and said to just remember, if the insects disappear, we’re next. Enough said; he was the best.”
Hoffman staunchly supported the concept of a Virginia Museum of Natural History for many years before its existence and was appointed as curator emeritus in 2009 after his retirement as curator of recent invertebrates, a post he held for 20 years. Hoffman also served as director of research and collections from 2007 to 2009. Before working at VMNH, he was a professor of biology at Radford University for 29 years.
“I was deeply sorry to hear the news of Richard’s death,” said Dr. Nicholas Fraser, keeper of natural sciences at National Museums Scotland and a VMNH research associate. “It is a great loss to the museum and of course to the natural science community in general. He was a formidable scientist with an extraordinary range of knowledge, and while we shall all miss him greatly, we must also remember the warmth, kindness and richness he brought to all of our lives.
“His thirst for knowledge was infectious, and he instilled a desire to better understand our natural heritage in all fortunate to be ‘taught’ by him. Mere words cannot convey our appreciation of his achievements: He has left a great legacy, and if we can all carry on in the traditions and philosophy he followed, then VMNH will go from strength to strength.”
Hoffman pursued undergraduate studies at the University of Virginia and earned a master’s degree in entomology from Cornell University and a doctorate in zoology from Virginia Tech.
“Richard was a real Virginia gentleman,” said Dr. Judith Winston, curator of marine biology at VMNH. “He was a wonderful teacher and a great person, as well as a world-renowned scientist.”
In celebration of his 80th birthday and his career achievements, a symposium and banquet were held in Hoffman’s honor at VMNH in September 2007. Numerous colleagues, co-workers, friends and family participated in the event.
To coincide with the occasion, the museum produced the special publication “A Lifetime of Contributions to Myriapodology and the Natural History of Virginia: A Festschrift in Honor of Richard L. Hoffman’s 80th Birthday.”
The collection of 32 papers from 41 authors on four continents is representative of Hoffman’s broad taxonomic interests and includes species ranging from salamanders, millipeds, centipeds and crustaceans to insects, plants and fossil mammals. Several of these species occupy highly threatened habitats and are potentially threatened with extinction.
Editor’s note: Ryan Barber is director of marketing and external affairs with the Virginia Museum of Natural History.