Leigh Van Valen — an evolutionary biologist for whom the word “polymath” is entirely appropriate — died this past weekend, after a long illness. Leigh was a student of both Theodosius Dobzhansky and G.G. Simpson at Columbia University, and spent most of the rest of his career at the University of Chicago, where he served on the faculties of the Department of Ecology and Evolution, and the Committees on Genetics, Evolutionary Biology, and the Conceptual Foundations of Science. Like I said: a true polymath.
As any of his students or colleagues will tell you, one’s first meeting with Leigh was unforgettable. Slight of stature and soft-spoken, with a long white beard and hair, Leigh had an incomparable knowledge of the biological literature, most of which was piled high in heaps in the narrow aisles of his office on the 4th floor of the Zoology building at Chicago. (To navigate those aisles, one often had to turn sideways and creep along, avoiding tipping the stacks of books and journals.) Leigh ran his own lending operation for students seeking hard-to-find books or monographs, recorded on a sheet of paper taped near the door, where a motion-sensitive toy frog croaked when students arrived for appointments.
Leigh kept his own counsel. In the early 1970s, unhappy with journal publication practices, he started the journal Evolutionary Theory, where his influential Red Queen hypothesis appeared in the first volume. Leigh published the work of evolutionary mavericks (like himself), such as Søren Løvtrup and Tom Frazzetta, and encouraged dissent from his contributors and students. Somewhere in my office, I have the syllabus from the first course I ever took with Leigh (Evolutionary Processes), where at the bottom of the page, he said that any student disagreeing with him in a paper would automatically receive a letter grade higher (than otherwise) on that paper — simply for taking a contrary stance.
Leigh relished the dialectic of science. Winning a smile from him, a smile that would light up his face and fill the room with warmth, was worth a day’s effort of preparing.
I will miss Leigh, more than I can say.
Note: Here is the story of one such smile. Leigh was a fan of Tolkien, and named his lab the Lothlorien Laboratory of Evolutionary Biology. A few years ago, when my daughters (at the time, middle school age) met Leigh, they told me, “Hey — he looks just like Gandalf! We should call him ‘The Wizard.'” When I told Leigh, later: big grin.