Fortey, Richard 1946-

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Fortey, Richard 1946-

(Richard A. Fortey, Richard Alan Fortey)

PERSONAL: Born February 15, 1946, in London, England; son of Frank (a fisher) and Margaret Fortey; married Bridget Thomas, October 3, 1969 (divorced, 1974); married Jacqueline Francis (an editor), June 21, 1978; children: (first marriage) Dominic; (second marriage) Leo, Rebecca, Julia. Ethnicity: “Caucasian.” Education: Cambridge University, B.A., 1968, M.A., 1970, Ph.D., 1971. Politics: “Leftish Liberal.” Hobbies and other interests: Mycology, poetry, beer.

ADDRESSES: Home—Oxon, England. Agent—David Godwin Associates, Goodwin’s Court, St. Martin’s Ln., London Wl, England. E-mail[email protected]

CAREER: Paleontologist, educator, and author. Natural History Museum, London, England, research fellow, 1970-73, senior science officer, 1973-77, principal science officer, 1978-86, senior principal science officer, 1988-91, merit researcher and senior paleontologist, 1991-2006. Visiting professor, University of Oxford, 2000; Collier professor in the public understanding of science and technology, University of Bristol, 2002.

MEMBER: Palaeontographical Society (president, 2007-08), Palaeontological Association (past president), Geological Society of London (vice president), British Mycological Society.

AWARDS, HONORS: D.Sc., Cambridge University, 1986; selection as natural-world book of the year, 1993, for The Hidden Landscape: A Journey into the Geological Past; Lydell Medal, Geological Society, 1996; fellow, Royal Society of London, 1997; Life: An Unauthorized Biography was named among the books of the year, New York Times, 1998; Frink Medal, Zoological Society of London, 2001; Lewis Thomas Prize, 2003; The Earth: An Intimate History was shortlisted for the Aventis science writing prize, 2005; Zoological Medal, Linnean Society, 2006; Michael Faraday Award, Royal Society, 2006.


(With R.M. Owens) Early Ordovician (Arenig) Stratig-raphy and Faunas of the Carmarthen District, South-West Wales, British Museum (London, England), 1978.

The Ordovician Trilobites of Spitsbergen, Norsk Polar-institutt (Oslo, Norway), 1980.

Fossils: The Key to the Past, Van Nostrand (New York, NY), 1982, 3rd edition, Smithsonian Institution Press (Washington, DC), 2002.

The Dinosaurs’ Alphabet (for children), illustrated by John Rogan, Barron’s (New York, NY), 1990.

The Hidden Landscape: A Journey into the Geological Past, J. Cape (London, England), 1993.

Life: An Unauthorized Biography, HarperCollins (London, England), 1997, published as Life: A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth, Knopf (New York, NY), 1998.

(Editor, with R.H. Thomas) Arthropod Relationships, Chapman & Hall (London, England), 1998.

Trilobite! Eyewitness to Evolution, Knopf (New York, NY), 2000, published as Trilobite: Eyewitness to Evolution, Vintage (New York, NY), 2001.

(As Richard A. Fortey; editor, with Philip D. Lane and Derek J. Siveter) Trilobites and Their Relatives: Contributions from the Third International Conference, Oxford 2001, Palaeontological Association (London, England), 2003.

The Earth: An Intimate History, HarperCollins (London, England), 2004, published as Earth: An Intimate History, Knopf (New York, NY), 2004.

Dry Store Room No 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum, HarperCollins (London, England), 2008.

Contributor to academic journals, including Journal of Paleontology, sometimes under the name Richard A. Fortey.

SIDELIGHTS: A former senior paleontologist with the Natural History Museum in London, England, Richard Fortey has written books for general readers on fossils, geological history, and the origins of life on Earth. In these works, Fortey has so successfully conveyed the excitement of scientific discovery that Chet Raymo, in the Boston Globe, called him “a worthy successor to such Victorian masters of natural-history writing as Thomas Huxley and John Tyndall.” In the words of Science contributor Kevin Burke, “Fortey is a scientist who can write for the larger world, substituting anecdotes for equations and cultural and historical perception for statistics. He is hugely informed, and his writing is elegant and entertaining.”

Fortey’s first book, Fossils: The Key to the Past, was welcomed as an excellent introduction to the subject for both adult and juvenile audiences. A Booklist reviewer noted that Fortey neither oversimplifies his material nor relies on jargon in this book, making it a “complete, approachable introduction.” Library Journal contributor Walter P. Coombs, Jr., also deemed the book an outstanding overview for a popular audience. Fortey’s children’s book, The Dinosaurs’ Alphabet, is a collection of short poems linking dinosaurs to letters of the alphabet. School Library Journal contributor Cathryn A. Camper remarked that, while Fortey incorporates factual information in his rhymes, the collection of verses is “less than memorable.”

In the volume The Hidden Landscape: A Journey into the Geological Past, Fortey combines his expertise in paleontology with an understanding of the development of human societies. Focusing on the British Isles, Fortey explains millions of years of geological history and shows how facts of earth science contributed to the growth of flora and fauna and to the development of such human endeavors as agriculture, mining, and even manufacturing. Fortey argues, for example, that Permian and Triassic rock corridors in the vales are natural traffic routes that humans exploited with canals, and that English wool towns sprang up near natural deposits of montmorillonite, a mineral that can be used to remove natural grease from wool. The book contains several other examples of such connections.

The Hidden Landscape received favorable reviews. Laura Garwin, in Nature, observed that, though the book focuses on Britain, it is more generally “about how an appreciation of geology and its hidden connections can enrich one’s experience of life in exactly the same way as can an understanding of art or music.” A contributor to the New Scientist appreciated the book’s “sense of the joy in discovery,” a quality also noted by Observer reviewer Jonathan Keates. Commenting favorably on the fact that Fortey “avoids anything like misty-eyed environmental piety or ‘Let’s-Discover-Fossils’ gung-ho,” Keates concluded that “this is a colossally romantic book, imbued with its author’s deep sensitivity to shifting atmospheres, his overwhelming passion for Eng-land, Wales and Scotland as living bodies… and his contagiously personal view of his subject.”

Life: An Unauthorized Biography, Fortey’s exploration of evolutionary history, also has elicited praise from critics. Andrew H. Knoll, in Nature, deemed it “the best account of life’s history that I know, an engaging narrative that succeeds as literature as well as science.” Knoll especially appreciated the way Fortey combines his scientific expertise with his sense of “paleontology as a way of knowing, illustrated honestly, and sometimes hilariously, by scenes from the life of [the author himself].” New Scientist reviewer Ted Nield, who ventured that the book would surpass the acclaim of The Hidden Landscape, also praised Fortey’s blending of science with personal narrative and his allusions to literature and music. Nield noted that Fortey’s position on the role of accidents in evolutionary development differs from theories put forth by biologist Stephen Jay Gould, but in degree rather than fundamentals. Fortey offers “no amazing revolutionary interpretations,” Nield concluded, but “meat-and-potatoes palaeo… the way only Fortey, it seems, can write it.” And Jerry A. Coyne, in the New York Times Book Review, assessed Fortey’s argument as “a much-needed correction to Stephen Jay Gould’s famous conclusions about the creatures of the Burgess Shale.” Coyne labeled “dubious” Fortey’s claims that humankind’s consciousness and ability to deceive fellow members of our species are what distinguishes us from other animals. While Coyne pointed out that the book lacks some of the intellectual rigor of similar books by the likes of Gould or Richard Dawkins, and is sometimes marred by “overheated prose,” he concluded that Life is worth reading by anyone with even a slight interest in the subject. An Economist contributor considered Life an “impressive synthesis of evolution” that had some omissions—in particular, on Gould’s disputed theory of “punctuated equilibrium” and on the evolution of the role of sex in behavior. But the reviewer acknowledged that the author is “good at showing that the failures of the great scientists he colourfully portrays are much the same as the failures of anybody else” and admired Fortey’s refusal to mock outdated scientific thinking.

In Trilobite! Eyewitness to Evolution, a work for young adults, Fortey “has produced a fascinating account of the hard-shelled arthropods—relatives of today’s horseshoe crab—that once crowded prehistoric seas,” observed Discover critic Deborah Hudson. An expert on trilobites, Fortey describes, at age fourteen, his introduction to the creatures, which existed for more than 300 million years and flourished during the Paleozoic era. Thousands of species have been discovered, and their fossilized remains have contributed greatly to evolution theory. Writing in Science, Allison R. Palmer called the work “an authoritative introduction to the world of trilobites and their aesthetic and scientific potential.” Palmer further noted that the author “brings trilobites, their geological and evolutionary significance, and their practitioners past and present alive for readers of all ages and levels of previous experience with these fossils. His semi-autobiographical account is written with style, humor, and a distinctly British accent that add to its charm.” John J. Ernissee, reviewing Trilobite! in Rocks & Minerals, stated, “It is rare for a first-rate scientist to be a prose stylist as well. Fortey is both. Readers will come away from this work with a solid introduction to the state of current knowledge of trilobites, clearly and expertly described.”

Fortey explores the theory of plate tectonics in The Earth: An Intimate History, “a lively mix of science, human history, and personal experience,” wrote Library Journal contributor Amy Brunvand. In the work, Fortey presents a history of the dramatic geological events that have shaped the earth’s surface. During his research, the author visited more than a dozen sites on the planet, including the Alps, the Scottish Highlands, Newfoundland, the Deccan Traps of India, the Hawaiian Islands, and the Bay of Naples. “Eventually, we see how the discovery of similar rock types and fossils in different parts of the world has allowed geologists to determine how the configuration of the continents has altered,” remarked Sarah Barnett in Geographical. “Mr. Fortey says his aim is to write an ‘anti-textbook,’ and he fully succeeds,” commented Nicholas Wade in the New York Times. “He writes gracefully, packing his pages with vignettes of the geologists who butted heads until they had figured it all out.”

In The Earth, Fortey also discusses the processes that drive geological change, “gradually building up a coherent description of how the theory of plate tectonics emerged to account for the world we see around us,” a critic in Kirkus Reviews stated. In the words of New York Times Book Review contributor Simon Lamb, “Fortey completes his world tour by undertaking a journey to the planet’s center, revealing the fundamental heat engine that drives the restless behavior of its outer skin.” In addition, the author also examines how geology influences life on the earth’s surface. Fortey “demonstrates how understanding local geology illuminates the grand structure of the planet, while his descriptions of floras and faunas show him as an assured naturalist,” Burke wrote. “His discussions of culture stem from an easy familiarity with history, literature, art, and anthropology.” “Like the complex crust of Earth itself, Fortey’s book is a mosaic—part history, part travelogue and part geological survey—which moves us with him around the globe and into Earth’s interior,” Michael Novacek commented in American Scientist.

Several critics praised the author’s lyrical narrative in The Earth. As Burke noted, “Fortey has gifts for the happy phrase and the unexpected vision.” “Fortey’s writing is lovely,” Jenny Davidson stated in the Village Voice. “There’s poetry in words like vog, chert, and gabbro or the names of the alpine plants (vetch, lungwort, saxifrage) that form ‘a special community of flowers in thrall both to altitude and geology.’” According to Lamb, “His writing is almost cinematic in style, providing details—wildflowers poking out of cracks in a stone wall, or the sound of water rushing by—that are so important to fleshing out the location atmosphere in a film, details that should inspire all travelers and make them want to visit distant lands.”

Fortey, who worked at the Natural History Museum for more than three decades until his retirement in 2006, offers a behind-the-scenes look at his former place of employment in Dry Store Room No 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum. According to London Guardian contributor Tim Radford, Fortey “is the perfect guide to the extraordinary Victorian edifice that he compares several times to Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast: a rambling palace of eclectic scholarship that has for 125 years been home to a collection of obsessives, opportunists and enthusiasts every bit as bizarre as the creatures they study.” The book’s title refers to a neglected repository in the bowels of the museum that houses a collection of scientific specimens, including kangaroo skeletons, sea urchin shells, and whale jawbones. “It became the metaphor for the book Fortey wanted to write: something that was more than just a defence of the taxonomic urge to order and understand the world,” Radford concluded. “This book is worthy of the place it tells us about,” observed London Times reviewer Simon Barnes, “and that is a pretty lofty chunk of praise.”

Fortey once told CA: “My intentions are possibly rather different from science writers like Gould and Dawkins. I wish to charm and cajole readers into sharing the same delight with natural history—and particularly palaeontology—that has sustained me for a lifetime. Naturally, I have opinions, but my books are not written primarily to advance those opinions.”



American Scientist, July 1, 2005, Michael Novacek, “A Restless Planet,” review of The Earth: An Intimate History, p. 370.

Booklist, February 1, 1983, review of Fossils: The Key to the Past, p. 704; October 15, 2000, Gilbert Taylor, review of Trilobite! Eyewitness to Evolution, p. 398; October 15, 2004, Gilbert Taylor, review of The Earth, p. 370.

Boston Globe, April 12, 1998, article by Chet Raymo, p. M3.

Choice, May, 2001, M.A. Wilson, review of Trilobite!, p. 1653; April, 2005, P.K. Strother, review of The Earth, p. 1429.

Discover, November, 2000, Deborah Hudson, review of Trilobite!, p. 103.

Economist, September 6, 1997, review of Life: A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth, p. S13.

Geographical, May, 2004, Sarah Barnett, review of The Earth, p. 95.

Geotimes, August, 2001, Loren E. Babcock, review of Trilobite!, p. 36; June, 2005, Callan Bentley, review of The Earth, p. 48.

Guardian (London, England), January 26, 2008, Tim Radford, “All Creatures Great and Small: Richard Fortey’s Dry Store Room No 1 Is a Light-hearted but Learned Compendium,” review of Dry Store Room No 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum.

Kirkus Reviews, October 1, 2004, review of The Earth, p. 947.

Library Journal, November 15, 1982, Walter P. Coombs, Jr., review of Fossils, p. 2182; October 15, 2000, Amy Brunvand, review of Trilobite!, p. 98; January, 2001, review of Trilobite!, p. 53; March 1, 2001, review of Trilobite!, p. 48; November 15, 2004, Amy Brunvand, review of The Earth, p. 84.

London Review of Books, February 3, 2005, John Whitfield, “70 Kilometres and Rising,” review of The Earth, p. 34.

Nature, March 24, 1994, Laura Garwin, review of The Hidden Landscape: A Journey into the Geological Past, pp. 366-367; August 21, 1997, Andrew H. Knoll, review of Life, pp. 731-732; November 2, 2000, review of Trilobite!, p. 27; April 15, 2004, “Earth’s Crude Mosaic,” p. 697.

New Scientist, February 19, 1994, review of The Hidden Landscape, p. 42; August 2, 1997, Ted Nield, review of Life, pp. 42-43; March 28, 1998, review of Arthropod Relationships, p. 49; July 22, 2000, review of Trilobite!, p. 48; March 17, 2001, review of Trilobite!, p. 58; March 20, 2004, “Highs and Lows of Earth’s Crust: Martin Ince Is Moved by the History of Mountains,” review of The Earth, p. 52.

New Yorker, January 22, 2001, review of Trilobite!, p. 89.

New York Times, November 16, 2004, Nicholas Wade, “Some of the Many Tales Earth Has That Explain How Its Face Got That Way,” review of The Earth, p. 8.

New York Times Book Review, April 12, 1998, Jerry A. Coyne, review of Life, p. 11; December 3, 2000, review of Trilobite!, p. 86; December 12, 2004, Simon Lamb, “Under the Volcanoes,” review of The Earth, p. 34.

Observer, January, 1994, Jonathan Keates, review of The Hidden Landscape.

Publishers Weekly, November 8, 2004, review of The Earth, p. 45.

Rocks & Minerals, September, 2001, John J. Ernissee, review of Trilobite!, p. 356.

School Library Journal, April, 1991, Cathryn A. Camper, review of The Dinosaurs’ Alphabet, p. 110.

Science, October 6, 2000, Allison R. Palmer, review of Trilobite!, p. 59; June 18, 2004, Kevin Burke, “Guidebook for a Grand Tour,” review of The Earth, p. 1748.

Science Books & Films, March 1, 2005, Robert M. Hor-don, review of The Earth, p. 65.

Science News, December 4, 2004, review of The Earth, p. 367.

SciTech Book News, March, 2001, review of Trilobite!, p. 61; December 2004, review of The Earth, p. 57.

Spectator, August 5, 2000, Philip MacCann, review of Trilobite!, p. 30.

Times (London, England), January 11, 2008, Simon Barnes, review of Dry Store Room No 1.

Times Higher Education Supplement, March 5, 2004, Harriet Swain, “Passionate Observer Who Wants Everyone to Feel the Earth Move,” interview with Richard Fortey, p. 22; April 2, 2004, Andrew Robinson, “How a Cockroach Can Be a Canary,” review of The Earth, p. 24; January 10, 2008, Nigel Barley, review of Dry Store Room No 1.

Times Literary Supplement, August 4, 2000, Niles El-dredge, review of Trilobite!, p. 9; April 16, 2004, Ian Tattersall, “Mountains in Manhattan,” review of The Earth, p. 24.

Village Voice, November 30, 2004, Jenny Davidson, “The Earth Moved: When It Comes to Intimate Histories, Bigger Can Be Better,” review of The Earth.


American Scientist Online, (October 19, 1994), “The Bookshelf Talks with Richard Fortey.”

TimeOut London, (January 28, 2008), Peter Watts, review of Dry Store Room No1.*