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Tom Phillips (1931-2018)

Tommy Lee Phillips, Professor of Plant Biology at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana campus, passed away after a long series of illnesses on July 14, 2018, at the age of 86. Conscious and working almost up to the end, he was, without ever striving to become so, or really recognizing it, one of the paleobotanical giants of his generation, “bestriding the narrow world like a Colossus”, to slightly misquote Shakespeare. The effect of his commitment to empirical work and to gathering copious amounts of data, the ideas and vision that emerged from that dedication, and his almost unparalleled capacity for organization, will be felt in the fields of paleobotany, paleoclimate studies, and coal geology for decades to come.

Tom Phillips.
Overview of the warehouse collection of coal-ball peels assembled by Tom Phillips and students.

Dr. Phillips, as he was ever known to most of his students, turned his attention almost exclusively to research on Pennsylvanian-age plants, anatomically preserved in coal-balls, starting in the early 1970s. Before that time, in the 1950s, he had studied coal-ball plants for his graduate work, particularly ferns, under the guidance of Professor Henry Andrews, at Washington University in St. Louis. Upon coming to Illinois in the early 1960s, however, he found other paleobotanists, Drs. Wilson Stewart and Ted Delevoryas, already working on coal balls, and so, for a brief time, turned his attentions elsewhere, including to plants of Late Devonian age. Those studies brought him to the Arctic for two summers (Photo), and to the cover of the Bulletin of the Missouri Botanical Garden (Volume LI, Number 1, January, 1963)! Eventually though, as selfdescribed below, he was drawn back to the unparalleled quality of preservation to be found in these remarkable coal-ball specimens, especially to his beloved ferns. Fern studies continued nearly until his death, particularly in collaboration with his long-term colleague Prof. Jean Galtier (Montpellier, France). He also was a student of the lycopsids, and published many important papers on that group of plants as well.

The major breakthrough of his career was the recognition of the role of paleoclimate in mediating changes in the composition of Pennsylvanian peat-swamp communities and the stratigraphic distribution of coal resources. As described by a senior colleague, Dr. Blaine Cecil (USGS retired), Dr. Phillips’ 1983 presentation at the Geological Society of America meeting in Indianapolis, where he re-introduced the idea of climate as a control on coal abundance and occurrence patterns, was revolutionary, permitting resolution of many of the seemingly conflicting aspects of sedimentologic, tectonic, and eustatic explanatory models. Going beyond paleobotany, these paleoclimate interpretations also provided a scientific framework for the reinterpretation of the origin of coal including environments of peat formation, and paleoclimate controls on coal quality.

Beginning with attempts to track the evolution of certain fern groups through time, he noticed that as the species changed temporally, so did the general composition of the swamp vegetation. This initial insight led him to realize the need for better data on this phenomenon, and so, with colleagues in the Physics Department at the University of Illinois, he began the process of developing a quantitative method for assessing coal-ball vegetation. The system first appeared in a Geological Society of America paper in 1977 [Phillips, T.L., Kunz, A.B. and Mickish, D.J., 1977. Paleobotany of permineralized peat (coal balls) from the Herrin (No. 6) Coal Member of the Illinois Basin. In: Interdisciplinary studies of peat and coal origins. Geological Society of America Microform Publication 7: 18-49], and has been used since, sometimes variously modified, in numerous papers by Dr. Phillips and his students, and by others wishing to quantify coal-ball plant abundance patterns. The result has been study of numerous coal beds from throughout the Euramerican paleogeographic realm, and the development of a major database of peat-swamp vegetational patterns over time. He also was the first to begin studies of coal ball “profiles” (aka: “vertical sections”), which required collecting coal balls directly from the face of a coal bed, while preserving the microstratigraphic and spatial geometries. Combined with the application of his quantitative-analysis methods, the result was a series of papers that greatly changed our understanding of the organization of Pennsylvanian peat-forming ecosystems.

At virtually the same time, Dr. Phillips began working with staff of the Illinois State Geological Survey (ISGS). Among these were geologists, members of the computer and data processing section, and palynologist Dr. Russel Peppers, who also coadvised some of Dr. Phillips’ paleobotany students, all done with the strong support of key administrators (particularly Survey Chief, Dr. Jack Simon). This collaboration with the ISGS continued up to his last days, ending with his final student and collaborator, Scott Elrick, now the head of the Coal, Bedrock, and Industrial Minerals Section. The technical support, access to mines, and geological and stratigraphic assistance offered by the Survey’s staff were essential to his work. Among the most important research to come from this collaboration, in addition to the peat-swamp ecology studies, was an early paper recognizing and detailing a major vegetational change at the Middle-Late Pennsylvanian boundary, a threshold-like event resulting in turnover of nearly twothirds of the plants, likely resulting from a strong pulse of warming and drying (Phillips, T.L., Peppers, R.A., Avcin, M.J. and Laughnan, P.F., 1974. Fossil plants and coal: patterns of change in Pennsylvanian coal swamps of the Illinois Basin. Science, 184: 1367-1369). Dr. Phillips felt very strongly about the importance of the links between geology and paleobotany, and nearly all of his students, most of whom were enrolled in the plant sciences program, were required to take courses in sedimentology, stratigraphy, and related geological disciplines.

His work was not unrecognized by colleagues, although he never sought such recognition, and actually strongly advised against even thinking about it. After all, as he made clear, why be concerned with such things, which are out of your control. Among the awards he received during his lifetime are “Honor Graduate” – top of his graduating class – in the U.S. Army Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC) School during the Korean War, and a Guggenheim fellowship, which permitted him to spend a sabbatical year first in France and then the Soviet Union (1975-1976). There were some unanticipated interaction effects between his CIC experience and his visit to the USSR, but all turned out well in the end. His later receipt of the Geological Society of America Gilbert Cady Award for excellence in Coal Geology (1992), and his election to the National Academy of Sciences (1999) were pleasant surprises to him, but never influenced him to deviate from the objectives he had set for himself as a research scientist.]

Education, including undergraduate teaching and graduate advising were central to Dr. Phillips’ personal mission as a university professor. He attended not only to his own students, but also to those from several other institutions, providing assistance with both field and laboratory work, as well as with thesis writing. These were never burdensome tasks, and he enjoyed sharing his thoughts with students in both formal and informal settings.

His University of Illinois graduate student advisees include the following:
Benton M. Stidd, Ph.D. (Western Illinois University, retired)
Karl J. Niklas, Ph.D. (Cornell University, retired)
Joan Courvoisier, M.S. (University of Florida, retired)
Lisa M. Pratt, M.S. (Ph.D. elsewhere) (Indiana University, NASA)
Linda Oestry, M.S. (Missouri Botanical Garden)
James F. Mahaffy, Ph.D. (Dordt College, retired)
William A. DiMichele, Ph.D (Smithsonian Institution)
Richard B. Winston, Ph.D. (U.S. Geological Survey)
Alicia D. Lesnikowska, Ph.D. (Georgia Southwestern State University, retired)
Suzanne Costanza, Ph.D. (Harvard University)
Debra A. Willard, Ph.D. (U.S. Geological Survey)
Scott D. Elrick, M.S. (Illinois State Geological Survey)

Those of us who worked closely with Dr. Phillips will miss his wisdom, mentorship, encouragement, and dry sense of humor. He was proud of all of his students, a strong supporter of the University of Illinois, and a believer in the power of education to change lives. From humble beginnings in the mountains of East Tennessee, he rose to the pinnacle of his profession thanks to native intelligence, physical strength, and great powers of endurance, but also to hard work and self discipline. Among the strongest messages I heard, not often, but never varying, were to love the work, consider yourself lucky to have such a profession; never take yourself too seriously or become too proud, because most of the discoveries we make or insights we have appear to be quite obvious in hindsight; do not engage in tête-à-tête debates with colleagues, just keep working and let the scientific process decide; and never strive for awards or recognition – you cannot control such things, and your real professional happiness is to be found in the love of your work, not “out there”.

In his private life, Dr. Phillips was married to Patricia Paden for 51 years. He had four children. His home was in Champaign, Illinois, a short drive from the University. A gardener in his free time, he once told me that he planted but God took care of the rest. From the plantings around his house, one would conclude (wrongly) that he loved Canadian yew, but also ferns and other exotic species, including the occasional angiosperm, especially if it were a tree. Born and raised in Kingsport, Tennessee, rugged country, Dr. Phillips came to love the Midwest landscape, its flatness and its big, seemingly endless sky – he attributed to his brother, Haynes, the observation that in the farmlands of Illinois, “the sky meets the ground.” Perhaps the best description possible. A fond memory of the lab was the big drawer of paperclips, 6 inches deep of them, an essential element for the organization of coal-ball peels, used to clip them to 4X5 inch cards. A child of the Depression, Dr. Phillips was a man who believed in having enough, and never trusted in others to fulfill those needs – one stood on their own two feet; thus, there were backups to the backups for all supplies, from pens and markers, to cardboard boxes, to steel shelving, to tape decks on which to play his favorite “books on tape” (spy novels – perhaps reflecting his service during the Korean War) – all this at home as well as in the lab. I don’t believe he ever had a cell phone, although under some tutelage he came to be a user of a large iMac computer, and even learned to navigate email, much of which he printed out to read – the computer was foremost a tool to look at high-resolution images of coal-ball peels, a step up from the microscope. He answered the phone in his soft drawl, at home and at work, “Hello, Tom Phillips”, and was a Southern Gentleman in all the complexity that encompasses.

Dr. Phillips’ career is summed up below in his own words, taken from a “Biographical Sketch” found among his papers by his wife, Pat, to whom I am indebted for her help with this brief memorial. From context, my guess is that the sketch was written in the late-1970s. Dr. Phillips was known for his long sentences, so the text has been altered slightly only by the addition of commas and hyphens, here and there. His words are as follows:

“I became interested in plant evolution as an undergraduate while majoring in botany and minoring in geology; at the time I was already committed to the idea of becoming a teacher in botany. The state of Tennessee still prohibited the teaching of evolution in state schools. I was particularly interested in anatomically preserved plants and the opportunities they afforded to more precisely trace evolution of a plant genus or family through an entire geologic period or longer. The pursuit of paleobotany ideally combined botany and geology. My undergraduate training was interrupted by the Korean War and I was in the U.S. Army (Counter Intelligence Corps) 1953-1955. In the summer of 1959 I was a physical science technician in the U.S.G.S. Coal Geology Laboratory and my apprenticeship in paleobotany was as a research assistant 1957-1961 [with Dr. James Schopf].

Graduate training at Washington University [with Professor Henry Andrews] offered an opportunity to begin studies of plant genera extending across the Pennsylvanian Period; the plants were anatomically preserved in the petrified peat deposits in coal seams of the Midwest. My doctoral thesis on the genus Botryopteris was a first attempt at more precisely tracing the evolution of a fern, and the sampling was inadequate to really get at the crux of variation in numerous coals of different stratigraphic age and to establish meaningful stratigraphic ranges. The opportunities at the University of Illinois, ringed by coal fields and with extensive collections of petrified peat, expanded the data for the study of Botryopteris, which was continued for a decade more. The earlier evolutionary history of the genus is known only from European deposits and upon the death of Holden in England, I went there on sabbatical and studied the available European specimens.

During the years of searching for additional occurrences of Botryopteris in petrified peat deposits, I was impressed with the changes in the coal swamp floras in which Botryopteris occurred, the coincidence of stratigraphic occurrence of this fern with distinctive floras, and eventually the major patterns of change through time of the floras, and to some extent their geographic changes within the U.S.A. This led to collaborative efforts with a palynologist [Dr. Russell Peppers] and, in turn, to studies of the coal swamp floras of England, France and the Soviet Union. For the first time it is now possible to carry out joint comparative studies of the coal swamp floras of North America and Europe with full time researchers in each of those countries. These efforts were initiated in 1975-1976 and involved the quantitative determination of the botanical constituents of coal and the stratigraphic ranges of the elements. The ultimate thrust of these data, beyond the application to coal properties, will be to establish the degree of identity of Upper Carboniferous swamp floras on what are now widely separated continental plates.

With the above as a main current in my research background, I have studied fossil plants from the Devonian and Pennsylvanian age deposits from the Midwest, West Virginia, and the Arctic, with two summers spent on Ellesmere Island [with Professor Andrews] and parts of others in West Virginia or nearby coal fields. These studies included genera from many of the major vascular plant groups, with special emphasis on fern or somewhat fern-like plants. My primary interest is the paleobotany of coalswamp vegetation, and quite a large research and reference collection of coal-ball material has developed at the Urbana campus since 1949. The main research project includes the determination of the coal-swamp floras, their associations, environmental implications, and the botanical constituents of coal, primarily in the midcontinent coals of Pennsylvanian age.

My teaching activities have included elementary biology and botany, upper division courses in comparative morphology of bryophytes and vascular plants, and paleobotany. Graduate studies in my laboratory include coal-ball plant studies, primarily ontogenetic and evolutionary, fossil algae including those of boghead coals, coal-ball palynology and coal palynology (supervised jointly by the Illinois State Geological Survey). I enjoy working with students and paleobotanical colleagues, and particularly welcome opportunities to share complementary talents on research projects that are beyond an individual’s grasp.

1972-Professor of Botany, University of Illinois, Urbana
1972-1973Associate Head, Botany Department
1965-1972Associate Professor
1961-1965Assistant Professor
1959, 1961M.A., Ph.D., Washington University, St. Louis Missouri
1953-1957B.S., B.A., University of Tennessee, Knoxville

Professional Organizations: Botanical Society of America (Paleobotanical Section, Chairman 1975-1976); Geological Society of America (Coal Section); International Societies of Morphology, Taxonomy, Palynology, Palaeontology, AAAS, AIBS; Torrey Botanical Club; Sigma Xi; Illinois Academy of Sciences”

Had Dr. Phillips signed this, it would have been with his signature self designation, “TLP”, which is how, with those three letters, most of his students, and many of his colleagues, referred to him when he was out of earshot. Little did he know, though, when he wrote these comments, where his pursuits would lead professionally, or that his work would have such far-ranging influence. In the long run, it may be his gift and passion for data collection, happily met with organizational skills and a curator’s attention to detail, all predicate to his scientific achievements, that will be his legacy. A truly staggering amount of material, meticulously collected, and documented, awaits investigation by future generations. This collection, symbolically a continuation of Dr. Phillips’ lifelong passion for teaching, provides a starting point for others, yet to come, from which to make their own discoveries and change the way we see the world.

William DiMichele