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Archive for Thursday, November 4, 2004

Retired professor’s ‘brilliance’ recalled

November 4, 2004

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Philip Wells loved scientific research and had a "gift for gab" to match, those who knew him said.

Wells, a Kansas University professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology, is being remembered this week in the wake of his death Friday at his McLouth home.

"He had encyclopedic knowledge, unlike most of us," said Craig Martin, professor and chairman of KU's ecology and evolutionary biology department.

Bob Lichtwardt, professor emeritus of biological science, agreed.

"He was quite a brilliant person," Lichtwardt said.

Wells, 76, had a worldwide reputation for his creative approach to investigating historical changes in vegetation patterns in the southwestern United States, Martin said. His research took him into desert caves, where he collected fossilized feces and urine from pack rat nests and brought them back to KU for study. He would break them down and determine what tree or plant matter was present and date it, Martin said.

"To get so much information out of old pack rat excrement is truly fascinating," Martin said. "It is really quite clever."

Wells was still conducting research and writing about it the last time Lichtwardt saw him.

"I saw him three or four weeks ago in the office, and he was working on something," Lichtwardt said.

Wells also did a lot of research about Kansas prairies in determining changes in prairie species compositions over periods of several decades, Martin said.

"He had a gift for gab, and he liked to talk about his work," Martin said. "He loved to come in your office, and sometimes an hour would pass and you'd talk about multiple subjects."

Wells worked at several other universities in addition to KU. His last stint at KU started in 1971; he retired in 1998.

A memorial service for Wells will be at 2 p.m. Saturday at KU's Adams Alumni Center. A complete obituary was in Wednesday's Journal-World.

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