Late KU paleontologist Martin brought prehistoric beasts’ stories to life

Paleontologist Larry Martin shows off fossils to visitors at the Kansas University Natural History Museum during a 2011 event. Martin, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and curator of vertebrate paleontology for KU's Biodiversity Institute since 1972, died Saturday after a lengthy illness.

Larry Martin in the Journal-World

Some of the many Journal-World stories featuring Larry Martin over the years:

• 2002: Curator envisions dinosaur exhibit

• 2005: Feathered reptile fossil stirs evolution debate

• 2008: ‘NOVA’ to feature KU scientists

• 2010: KU researchers gain new insights from fossil that KU has had for decades

Whether he was talking about saber-toothed cats on TV or fearlessly challenging beliefs in his field about how birds evolved, Larry Martin made prehistoric stories come alive.

Martin, a paleontologist, was a professor at Kansas University and a curator for KU’s Biodiversity Institute for 40 years. He died Saturday at age 69, following a lengthy illness, the university announced this week.

He had a thirst for discovery and for spreading knowledge that continued right up to his death, said David Burnham, a colleague, former student and collaborator of Martin’s since 1998.

“My first day on the job, he had me in the classroom at the chalkboard, comparing notes on birds and dinosaurs,” Burnham said. “And every day I was at work, for 14 years, we did the same thing.”

He was an accomplished and respected scientist who didn’t mind getting his hands dirty discovering or cleaning new specimens, and he was a public spokesman for his field who didn’t mind ruffling feathers within it, his colleagues said.

“He was really good at bringing science to life, for both a practitioner as well as the public,” said Biodiversity Institute director Leonard Krishtalka, a fellow paleontologist who met Martin when they were both doctoral students at KU in the early 1970s.

From 1972 until his death, Martin was a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and a curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Biodiversity Institute, the research center behind KU’s Natural History Museum.

He was a rare “renaissance paleontologist” who possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of all kinds of animals, said Alan Feduccia, a professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina who co-wrote about a dozen research papers with him.

He wrote about 170 research papers in all, including some published in the most prestigious journals in the world. He won research grants from a variety of agencies.

“It’s a huge loss for the field,” Feduccia said.

He also helped Burnham, who prepares fossil material for study in the Biodiversity Institute’s vertebrate paleontology lab, locate and prepare new specimens. Burnham said Martin seemed to know where each of the 150,000 items in the lab’s collection was located.

And he passed that expertise and research ability on to his students, said Krishtalka, who had worked with Martin since becoming the institute’s director in 1995. One former student of Martin’s now directs the most prestigious paleontology institution in China, another is a leader in South Korea, and others conduct research all over the United States.

KU’s paleontology graduate program is frequently ranked among the best in the country — No. 7 in the most recent U.S. News and World Report rankings — and Martin has been a big part of that strength, Krishtalka said.

Feduccia said he and other paleontologists from around the country would often come to Lawrence to visit Martin and his wife, Jean.

“He was just a jovial chap and had one of those magnetic personalities,” Feduccia said, “and he was just a joy to be around.”

But while he had many friends among his colleagues, he was not afraid of controversy. After new fossil discoveries in China during the past 15 years, Martin pushed a theory that birds had co-existed with dinosaurs — in contrast to the accepted theory that birds had actually evolved from dinosaurs.

“He did not fear to go against the conventional established theory,” Krishtalka said.

His work caused some contention, Krishtalka said. But Feduccia said many scientists now agree with Martin’s ideas.

Even if he was willing to challenge ideas in his field, Martin’s boundless enthusiasm made him a great spokesman for paleontology, colleagues said. He made frequent appearances on TV, including on the Discovery Channel and “NOVA” on PBS, to discuss saber-toothed cats, birds and dinosaurs.

Above all, Burnham said, Martin aimed to tell the stories of these beasts that roamed the planet millions of years ago, to other scholars, regular folks or anyone who would listen. And he did so like few others could do it, he said.

“These things, he wanted to bring back to life,” Burnham said. “And he certainly did.”