Leo Hickey, a leading scholar in the field of paleontology remembered by friends, family and colleagues for his sense of humor and breadth of academic interest, died of melanoma Saturday morning at the Connecticut Hospice in Branford, Conn. He was 72.
A prominent figure in the field of paleobotany, the study of plant fossils, Hickey came to Yale in 1982 to serve as director of the Peabody Museum of Natural History and chaired the Geology and Geophysics Department from 2003 to 2006. Throughout his 30-year tenure, Hickey inspired numerous graduate students to pursue work in the academic areas that fascinated him most, including the evolutionary history of flowering plants and stratigraphy, the study of rock stratification. Friends and family knew him as a vivacious learner who was always eager to share his interests, spanning early Christian history, winemaking, poetry and Latin.
“He had a childlike view of the glory of the world and the beauty of nature,” said Hickey’s wife, Judy.
A native of Philadelphia, Hickey went to high school at a minor seminary in Indiana and earned a bachelor’s degree in geology from Villanova University in 1962. He first became interested in paleobotany as a doctoral candidate at Princeton University in the 1960s, when he discovered that scientists often misclassify certain plant fossils called angiosperm leaf fossils, Geology and Geophysics Department Chair Jay Ague said. Hickey then set out to establish a more precise method of studying fossils by examining their leaf remains.
After he left Princeton, Hickey went to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C., where he studied the leaves of flowering plants and developed an innovative method of plant classification that has been adopted by scientists worldwide. Hickey was the primary scientist behind four permanent exhibits at the Smithsonian and later helped develop seven exhibits at the Peabody including the Cretaceous Garden, which debuted in 2011. Hickey was awarded the Raymond C. Moore Medal, one of the most prestigious international prizes in paleontology, in 2009.
Scott Wing ’76 GRD ’81, Hickey’s first student and lifelong friend, said Hickey was animated by exploration and had an infectious enthusiasm for his work even late in his life.
Colleagues and students remembered Hickey not only as a dedicated and pioneering academic, but also as a man who worked hard to make science accessible to everyone.
“Leo was always so open and willing to be helpful that you never felt intimidated,” said Daniel Peppe GRD ’09, a former advisee who now teaches paleobotany at Baylor University.
Every fall that Hickey taught the undergraduate course “Stratigraphy,” he would place a different type of rock on each step of the Kline Geology Laboratory stairway and ask students to identify the rocks and to use their sequence on the steps to predict the kind of environment from which they were extracted, Hickey’s colleagues recalled. Peppe said the assignment was a novel way of approaching the study of stratigraphy, adding that Hickey loved fieldwork and always tried to simulate the experience for his students if they were unable to conduct fieldwork themselves.
Robert Burger ’93, assistant provost for science and technology, said his summer working with Hickey in Wyoming was one of the highlights of his undergraduate years, adding that Hickey’s enthusiasm for his fieldwork was contagious even though Burger was not primarily interested in paleobotany.
“Leo’s philosophy was that it is important for students to see a specimen that is one-of-a-kind in the world, and to handle it, study it, examine it,” Ague said. “He advocated hands-on learning — that’s something you can’t get on the Internet.”
Judy, Hickey’s wife, said her husband often took the family into the field, adding that all three of their sons developed an appreciation for paleontology.
Peppe said Hickey, who had “very, very dry humor,” enjoyed wordplay and making puns. Ague recalled that during faculty meetings, he and Hickey often competed in “pun wars,” and Hickey usually emerged victorious.
“He usually could come up with one more pun than I could, and he always laughed heartily once the joke was revealed,” Ague.
But when it came to research and teaching, Hickey approached his work with intensity and demanded similar dedication of his students. Evan Sniderman ’13, who took “History of Life” and “Stratigraphy” with Hickey, said his passion for the subject inspired students to tackle their course work with equal vigor. Sniderman said Hickey came into class on the first day of “Stratigraphy” and told students to expect two credits’ worth of work, though the class was only worth one credit. Sniderman added that students in the class were motivated by the rigorous standards Hickey imposed on himself.
In addition to his extensive contributions to paleontology, Hickey was passionate about Celtic and early Christian history and had a rich background in the classics. He was also a lover of music and poetry, and he wrote poems that he shared with his friends and family.
“He was often called a Renaissance man by those who knew him, because he had a broad knowledge of so many things,” his wife said.
A Roman Catholic, Hickey was a member of the St. Thomas More Chapel. Geology and geophysics professor Karl Turekian said he and Hickey often had long discussions about the impact of their religious philosophies on their lives. While his viewpoint often differed greatly from Hickey’s, Turekian noted Hickey was always a sympathetic listener and valued diverse perspectives.
Hickey is survived by his wife, his three sons — Geoffrey, Damian and Jason — and his three grandchildren.