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Helen Nina Loeblich Tappan


Helen Nina Tappan Loeblich

Professor of Geology, Emerita

UC Los Angeles

 1917 – 2004


On August 18, 2004, the paleontology community lost a major figure with the passing of Helen Tappan Loeblich. Born on October 12, 1917, in Norman, Oklahoma, Helen Tappan went on to become an international leader in the field of micropaleontology. She earned her Bachelor of Science degree in 1937 at the University of Oklahoma, Phi Beta Kappa, and received the Sigma Gamma Epsilon Scholarship Award for Outstanding Senior in Geology. A Master of Science degree followed in 1939. It was during this time at the University of Oklahoma that she met her soul-mate, Al Loeblich, Jr., whom she married on June 18, 1939, thus beginning a life-long scientific collaboration that resulted in major advancements in paleontology.


They transferred to the University of Chicago where Helen received her Doctorate of Philosophy in geology in 1942. With the expectation that she would work for an oil company, both her master’s thesis and doctoral dissertation were on Texas and Oklahoma mid-Cretaceous foraminifera.


While teaching at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana, Al received orders to report for military duty in 1942. Helen assumed all of Al’s teaching responsibilities and became the first woman faculty member of Tulane’s College of Arts and Sciences (1942-1943). At the end of World War II, the Loeblich-Tappan family found themselves in Washington, D. C. where Al obtained a position as curator of invertebrate paleontology and paleobotany at the United States National Museum. Helen resumed her earlier work with the United States Geological Survey (USGS), this time with the Navy Oil Project in the naval Petroleum Reserve of Alaskan North Slope.


During 1953-1954, the Smithsonian Institution sent Al to Europe to collect foraminiferal samples and to study collections in the major European museums as background for Helen and Al’s work on the Treatise on Invertebrate Paleontology volume on foraminifera. Helen was forced to take a leave of absence from the USGS because of their policy of not allowing their personnel to work outside the United States. She obtained a Guggenheim Fellowship and together with their four children and Al’s mother, they spent a year traveling throughout Europe, collecting more than two tons of rocks and examining many historical collections of foraminifera. Helen illustrated with a camera lucida the type specimens they studied.


From 1954 to 1956 Helen was an honorary research associate of the Smithsonian Institution and in 1957, the Loeblich-Tappan family moved to California where Al headed a micropaleontological program at Chevron Oil Field Research Company. Helen continued to work part-time for the USGS and in 1958 began teaching at UCLA, becoming a full-time faculty member in 1966, full professor in 1968, and vice chairman of Geology from 1973 to 1975.


During her years at UCLA, Helen advised, mentored, and inspired numerous students, many of whom went on to achieve prominence in geology, paleontology, micropaleontology, and palynology. Her graduate students specialized in Cretaceous and Cenozoic foraminifera, Miocene diatoms, Cretaceous coccoliths, Cretaceous and Tertiary dinoflagellates, chrysophyte cysts, and radiolaria, as well as Paleozoic acritarchs and prasinophytes. Such a wide range of topics is testimony to Helen’s breadth and knowledge in the fields of micropaleontology and palynology.


During her lifetime Helen served on many editorial and society boards as well as various committees. She received numerous awards, including the 1982 Woman of Science Award from the UCLA Medical Center Auxiliary, the Paleontological Society Medal in 1983, the Raymond C. Moore Medal for “Excellence in Paleontology” in 1984, and the 1987 Woman of the Year Award in Natural Science from the Palm Springs Desert Museum, to name a few.


Helen will probably be best remembered for her landmark papers and books as well as her prodigious scientific output, both as sole author and in collaboration with Al. Helen published 272 scientific papers or books, mostly with Al. It is impossible to mention here all of Helen’s important papers, but a few are worth noting. Their 1957 paper “Correlation of the Gulf and Atlantic Coastal Plain Paleocene and lower Eocene formations by means of planktonic Foraminifera” won Best Paper Award in the Journal of Paleontology. The two-volume Treatise on Invertebrate Paleontology, Part C. Protista 2. Sarcodina, chiefly ‘Thecamoebians’ and Foraminiferida (1964), is a landmark publication in which they classified foraminiferida on the basis of external wall characteristics. Their two-volume book Foraminiferal Genera and Their Classification (1987) is their magnum opus in foraminiferal research. In it, they revised foraminiferal classification by considering the internal wall structure and studying the type-species of almost all valid genera in the literature. This book received the 1988 Award of the Association of American Publishers for the best professional and scholarly book in the field of Geography and Earth Science. Helen was also very proud of her book The Paleobiology of Plant Protists (1980), and it was voted the book publisher’s best non-fiction book for that year.


Helen was an achiever of the highest order. Her research and publications were rigorous, scientifically grounded, and always first-rate. She was a superb writer and editor and improved the manuscripts of numerous students and researchers. She demanded excellence, not only from herself, but also from her students and colleagues. She instilled in her students a strong work ethic and commitment to be the best they could. In addition to her many scientific accomplishments and honors, Helen was a very humble woman who was kind to everyone. She was quiet and soft-spoken, and led by example. She was extremely generous with her time and expertise and always had time for her students. On many occasions Helen would put aside a paper she was writing to help one of her students with their research. One could not ask for a better advisor than Helen.


Apart from her scientific achievements, Helen was an excellent artist. She illustrated all of her papers and designed and made the printing blocks for their Christmas cards, which showed their current research specimens adorned in a holiday theme. In addition, she designed the bookplates for their extensive library and designed the 50th Anniversary Stamp of the Society of Economic Paleontologists and Mineralogists (now the Society for Sedimentary Geology).


Reed Wicander