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Robert S. Hoffmann: 1929–2010

Don E. Wilson, Robert M. Timm
DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1644/10-MAMM-O-421.1 460-473 First published online: 15 April 2011

Robert Shaw Hoffmann—“Bob” to vice presidents of the United States, university presidents, international scholars, and his students—passed away on 6 April 2010 at the age of 81. When asked what the “S.” stood for, Bob always responded “Spermophilus” never taking himself too seriously despite being a highly regarded international scholar, a well-respected Smithsonian Institution senior administrator in Washington, D.C., and stalwart leader of the American Society of Mammalogists (ASM) and several other international societies. Bob is survived by Sally (the former Sally Ann Monson), his wife of 58 years. His other survivors include 3 sons, Karl R. (and Judy) living in Spain; John F. in Topeka, Kansas; and David R. (and Debbie) in Charleston, West Virginia; 1 daughter, Brenna E. Hoffmann Olivier (and Frank) in Oakland, California; 2 grandchildren, Aiden and Muriel Olivier; a sister-in-law, Joy Hoffmann; and nephews and nieces.

Bob was born in Evanston, Illinois, on 2 March 1929. His family moved to a rural area when he was in grade school, and much of his time was spent exploring the woods, fields, and forest preserves near his home. From the time Bob was 8 he knew he would study animals. He scouted birds in the suburbs and kept a daily journal of birds he had seen, their names written in a tiny notebook tucked in his pocket. As a boy, he frequently traveled by streetcar to the Field Museum of Natural History in downtown Chicago, where he volunteered, and he became a regular visitor to Brookfield Zoo. He spent as much time at the Field Museum studying the exhibits as he could. He declared he would become a zoologist, a word most kids his age didn't even know. At the age of 11 he took a summer job at the Brookfield Zoo selling peanuts, giving him the opportunity to get to know the animals and their keepers. A 5th-grade teacher strongly encouraged his interest in natural history, and by the time he reached high school he had decided on a career in biology. Phillip L. Wright, his undergraduate advisor at the University of Montana and lifelong friend, had a great deal to do with why he chose mammalogy as his major field of specialization.

Bob started as a freshman at the University of Illinois Extension in Moline (1946–1947) but transferred from there to the University of Montana as a sophomore in 1947 because of its strong wildlife program. When his parents moved to Utah he transferred in 1948 to what is now Utah State University. He received a Bachelor of Science degree from Utah State in 1950. Bob and Sally met at a dance when she was a 17-year-old freshman music major and Bob was a junior. They dated for 2 years, until he went to the University of California at

Berkeley for his master's degree and Ph.D. and she headed to Syracuse University to finish her bachelor's degree. He proposed in a letter in 1951 and she accepted.

Bob did his graduate work at the University of California, Berkeley, receiving his Master of Arts degree in 1954 and Ph.D. in 1956. His dissertation was based on a 3-year, in-depth field study of montane and California voles (Microtus montanus and M. californiens, respectively) and sooty grouse (Dendragapus fuliginosas), assessing the relationships between reproduction and mortality and the resulting cyclic fluctuations in population density within each species. His major professor was A. Starker Leopold, and he also was influenced strongly by Frank A. Pitelka and Oliver P. Pearson. Although Bob is best known as a mammalogist, many of his early publications involved various aspects of grouse ecology (e.g., reporting the impact of DDT on reproduction). He was awarded 2 National Science Foundation predoctoral fellowships and the Annie M. Alexander Fellowship of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology. While a graduate student at Berkeley he pursued his long-standing interest in Russia. Bob's interest in Russia began in high school, and in addition to taking the language as a university student, as a graduate student at Berkeley he worked closely with a recent émigré janitor mastering the language. One of his earliest efforts in translating scientific Russian text into English was during this period as he was undertaking his dissertation research. He translated from Russian N. I. Kalabukhov's article on dynamics in numbers of terrestrial vertebrates, which appeared in Zoologicheskii Zhurnal [26:503–520], and deposited his translation in United States Department of the Interior Library, Washington, D.C.

Bob's 1st teaching position was as Instructor in the Department of Zoology, University of Montana, a position that began several months prior to his dissertation defense in 1955. He was sequentially promoted to Assistant Professor in 1957, Associate Professor in 1961, and Professor in 1965. During much of this time he also served as Curator of the Zoological Museum, where he expanded the research collection and published extensively on mammals and birds of Montana. Sally and Bob's children recall with great fondness their summer camping expeditions to remote ranges so Bob could conduct his research. While at Montana Bob was the academic advisor to 4 Ph.D. students, Mirza A. Beg (1969), Thomas S. Choate (1962), Donald L. Pattie (1967), and John O. Sullivan (cochair, 1973); and 11 master's students, Gerald J. Bakus (1957), Peter T. Bromley (1967), Thomas S. Choate (1960), Darwen N. Hennings (1970), Richard E. Johnson (1968), James R. Koplin (1962), Polley A. McClure (1966), Jan O. Murie (1963), C. E. Plopper (1968), R. Stoneberg (1973), and Nicolaas A. M. Verbeek (1965). In 1963, while at Montana, Bob finally got his chance to work in Russia. Bob and family spent 10 months in St. Petersburg (Leningrad) on a National Academy Exchange between the United States and Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (hereafter USSR) Academies of Science, working at the Zoological Museum of the Zoological Institute of the Russian Academy of Science, the largest Russian museum devoted to zoology (see Hoffmann 1968). He continued an extensive collaboration with distinguished Russian and later Chinese mammalogists throughout his career.

He joined the faculty of the University of Kansas in 1968 as Curator of Mammals in the Museum of Natural History and Professor in the Department of Zoology. During his tenure at the University of Kansas he served in several administrative positions, including Chairman of the Department of Systematics and Ecology, Acting Chairman of the Division of Biological Sciences, and Associate Dean and Acting Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the largest college within the university. Bob was awarded the Summerfield Distinguished Professorship, the highest honor for faculty at the University of Kansas. Ironically, one reason he gave for leaving Montana was because they kept trying to make him an administrator, and he wanted to remain a scientist—teaching, researching, and training graduate students.

Despite his considerable success as an administrator and scientist at the University of Kansas, Bob surely would have declared that working with students was his greatest career achievement. Bob directed the doctoral programs of 21 students, including Bradley J. Bergstrom (1986), Fernando A. Cervantes-Reza (1988), Lawrence R. Heaney (1979), Sandra J. Herrington (cochair, 1986), Thorvald Holmes, Jr. (cochair, 1987), X.-L. Jiang (2000), James W. Koeppl (1979), Sheila M. Kortlucke (1984), Howard Levenson (1982), Gary McGrath (1987), Assefa Mebrate (1987), Jorge M. Palmeirim (1986), James W. Parker (cochair, 1974), John J. Pizzimenti (1974), Chester B. Rideout (1974), Paul B. Robertson (1975), Robert K. Rose (cochair, 1974), Barbara L. Stein (1985), Carol J. Terry (1981), Merlin D. Tuttle (1973), and W. Christopher Wozencraft (1984). Bob also was the advisor of 15 master's students, including Douglas C. Andersen (cochair, 1975), Ronald W. DeBry (cochair, 1981), Lawrence R. Heaney (1978), Sandra J. Herrington (1984), Jane A. Junge (1981), Jorge M. Palmeirim (1985), Tom W. Pearson (1981), Jaime E. Péfaur (1973), Richard N. Racine (1977), Eric A. Rickart (1976), Jon W. Robinson (1973), David L. Ruhter (1978), Barbara L. Stein (1979), Carole A. Tomlinson (1987), and Julián Treviño-Villarreal (1988). His students tell us that he was the sort of advisor who made time in his hectic schedule to respond promptly to student requests. He was approachable, tolerant, and encouraging, especially when it came to getting students to publish. He helped his students use their own strengths rather than his, and he had an uncanny ability to transform a student's interest in a research topic into their passion. As a faculty mentor Bob was truly loved by his students. He was never judgmental and was always positive. As both scientist and teacher Bob was held in extremely high esteem by colleagues and students alike, both for his encyclopedic knowledge of mammals and his unassuming manner. Young students remember from their 1st discussions with him that he was kind, engaging in conversation about 1st attempts at research, and encouraging in his own gentle, inquisitive, but warm, low-key way. This is all the more impressive given that he had a near photographic memory and could point out pertinent papers to the student's research on nearly any subject in mammalogy, giving the authors, year, title, and journal. At the University of Kansas and later at the Smithsonian, the daily brown-bag lunch he packed always included a sandwich and frequently an overripe banana, and an occasional can of light beer.

Bob's research interests were notably broad. His primary interest was in determining the extent of mammalian diversity and the evolutionary origin of that diversity, always placed into a rigorous biogeographic context. He typically recognized and quickly adopted new techniques that allowed new insights—multivariate morphometric analysis, karyology, protein electrophoresis, cladistic analysis, DNA sequencing techniques, and others were all added to his tool kit as they became available, often long before they were accepted by most other practicing systematists. Bob was among the 1st to incorporate Landsat imagery and spatial modeling in mapping and evaluating wildlife habitats. He was an early proponent of phylogenetics and encouraged his students to learn the techniques and undertake their own research on groups of interest to them. Other new developments he incorporated in his research included starch gel electrophoresis, karyotyping (with Charles F. Nadler, his physician friend and lifelong collaborator), and the use of computers in research (through his students). He was developing research on historical biogeography before this official name of the field had been created. He was also one of the 1st to attempt predictive mapping and encouraged several of his students to do this as well. He had external funding for his research, but his curriculum vitae lists no dollar amounts in that Bob, as a scientist and true scholar, looked for support when needed but recognized that the support was not an end in itself but rather enabled him and his students to conduct their studies. With a botanist colleague at the University of Kansas he developed an undergraduate course on diversity of organisms that incorporated phylogenetic techniques and the evolutionary history of organisms as a way for students to better understand life on Earth. The course has evolved over the years, but it is still being taught.

The geographic focus of his studies was the Holarctic region; he and his students and collaborators conducted extensive fieldwork in northern and central Asia (particularly in the Soviet Union) and in North America. Bob was especially interested in the movement of mammals across the Bering Strait and the role of that movement in the diversification of the Holarctic fauna. This interest led him not only into detailed studies of the systematics of Holarctic mammals (especially the highly diverse shrews, lagomorphs, squirrels, and microtine rodents) but also into developing a much broader view of the crucial Amphiberingian region, including its Pleistocene climatic fluctuations, vegetational history, and geological history. Larry Heaney, one of his former students, recalls that Bob recognized that the ecology of individual species was often crucial in understanding the impact of historical factors on their past distribution and the manner and location of their diversification. No issue of taxonomy or anatomy was too small to merit Bob's attention, but the goal was always to place the information into the broadest possible context. Bob's legendary memory was especially crucial to his broad research program; many of his students were dumbfounded to find that after their years of study, Bob not only knew the primary, crucial past publications on their research topic, but he also often correctly recalled the page numbers. It was this remarkable memory that allowed him to make some of his most important contributions to Quaternary and mammalian biogeography—no one else knew the literature as well as Bob, and he always knew the literature from the United States, Soviet Union, and Europe equally well.

The breadth of Bob's research interests is clearly reflected in the long list of his students. Bob paid careful attention to each, and to each he seemed to be a remarkably humble master of their own special area of interest. To each, he represented an ideal for which to strive. Bob was especially encouraging to students doing new, creative work.

Bob's career at the Smithsonian Institution began in 1986 when he became Director of the National Museum of Natural History. His administrative skills were quickly recognized, and he was named Assistant Secretary for Research of the institution in 1988 and Assistant Secretary for Science in 1990. Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution Ira Michael Heyman reorganized the institution's senior administration and named Bob the 1st Provost in the fall of 1994. While still in that position he also served as Acting Director of the National Air and Space Museum from May 1995 to July 1996, a period of turmoil in the museum. His leadership transformed turmoil into stability, and in the summer of 1996 he was awarded the Secretary's Gold Medal for Exceptional Service. He then returned to the Natural History Museum as a Senior Scientist, taking up his research full time in the Division of Mammals of the Department of Vertebrate Zoology.

During his 10 years as a senior Smithsonian administrator Bob strengthened the Institution's research agenda by broadening the Scholarly Studies Program; establishing 3 Molecular Systematics Laboratories at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Center, National Zoological Park, and National Museum of Natural History; expanding the scientific staff at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater, Maryland; and by seeking federal funding for new interdisciplinary programs, including Human Origins, Arctic Studies, Archaeobiology, Biodiversity, and the Evolution of Terrestrial Ecosystems. At the National Museum of Natural History, he undertook a strategic planning study that prepared the museum for major changes, including the 1st development office, a national board, and a streamlined administrative structure still in use today. While Assistant Secretary for Research, he helped create several pan-institutional initiatives to bring together the institution's scholarly staff, including the Institute for Conservation Biology and the ongoing Congress of Scholars, modeled on the university faculty senates that he had known during his years in academia. Bob retired on 1 November 2003 after completing his duties as scientific advisor for exhibits in the Kenneth E. Behring Family Hall of Mammals. Retirement had little effect on his work habits; he came into the Division of Mammals daily, continued his research projects on Russian and Chinese mammals, and helped students with their research.

Bob was a mainstay of the ASM, which he joined in 1955. He served as a Director, Vice President, President (1978– 1980), Review Editor of the Journal of Mammalogy, and member or chairman of a number of committees. He was particularly active on the Committee on International Relations, which he chaired from 1964 to 1968 and from 1972 to 1978. Bob was a strong proponent of graduate student participation in the ASM, and the Education and Graduate Students Committee was formed during his presidency. A little-known and long-standing service that Bob provided to ASM was to read 2nd corrections on proof for ASM publications at Allen Press during the years he was at the University of Kansas. The ASM awarded him its highest honor, Honorary Membership, in 1996, and he received the C. Hart Merriam Award for outstanding research in mammalogy in 2007.

Because of his research in Russia, familiarity with Russian scientists, and knowledge of the language, he played a critical role in establishing the initial liaison between the ASM and Russian mammalogists. Bob's interests in Russia and Holarctic mammals led him to organize a symposium, “Russian-American exchanges in mammalogy,” at the 1960 ASM meeting. He laid the groundwork for the 1st International Theriological Congress in Moscow in 1974. After 10 months as National Academy of Sciences Exchange Fellow at the museum in St. Petersburg in 1963–1964, he began long-term research associations in Russia, especially with Nikolai Vorontsov of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Their chromosomal studies on the evolution of Holarctic ground squirrels, often with Charles F. Nadler of Northwestern University Medical School, resulted in a series of extremely important papers. These international associations nurtured Bob's interests in other Holarctic mammals, including soricine shrews and microtine rodents and his interests in Quaternary studies. Bob served as National Academy of Sciences representative to the National Committee for the International Union for Quaternary Studies (INQUA) for 12 years, including 5 years as Chair. Among other National Academy of Sciences appointments, he served on the United States–USSR Joint Commission on Science Policy for the National Academy of Sciences from 1974 to 1982 and on the National Academy of Sciences Advisory Committee on the USSR and Eastern Europe from 1970 to 1975. After his move to the Smithsonian, his research interests expanded to China; here he and American and Chinese associates began studies that continued throughout the remainder of his career. He served on the Organizing Committee for the First Symposium on Asian–Pacific Mammalogy held in Beijing in 1989, on the board of editors for 2 major Chinese publications, and for several years as an officer of the International Council of Museums and the related United States National Committee. Robert K. Rose wrote that he considers Bob's greatest contribution to the science of mammalogy to be as the prime mover in the creation of the International Mammal Congresses, now held every 4 years. (In the early 1970s, Bob was 1 of only 4 North American mammalogists with facility with the Russian language.) Bob realized that to be truly international such a meeting must include mammalogists from Russia and other Eastern Bloc countries. Recognizing that it was virtually impossible for any scientist from an eastern country to get a visa to attend a meeting in the West, Bob set about convincing his Russian colleagues, especially Academician Vladimir Sokolov, a party member, that the Russians should host the 1st International Theriological Congress, which they did in June 1974 in Moscow. This meeting was hugely successful (and still the largest despite 8 others in various parts of the world) and was followed by congresses in Czechoslovakia and Finland (a Soviet-friendly country) and eventually at sites on other continents. Bob was a member of that congress's organizing committee and a member of the Congress Presidium for another 4 years.

Bob was an active member of a number of other professional societies, including the Society of Systematic Zoology, for which he served as President in 1988. He served as a consultant to, or member of, many national and international scientific bodies, and the Board of Editors of Acta Zoologica Sinica (Beijing). He was a member of Phi Kappa Phi, Sigma Xi, and Phi Sigma and a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Among other honors, he received an honorary Doctor of Science from Utah State University in 1988, a 30-year medal for United States–USSR Interacademy Exchange, election as Honorary Member of the All-Union (USSR) Theriological Society, and election as a Foreign Member to the Russian Academy of Natural Sciences. Recently, the National Museum of Natural History named its new, high-end computer, one of Sun's most powerful and flexible machines, “Hoffmann” in honor of Bob.

Bob truly was interested in facilitating communication among scientists and students. Throughout his career he made a concerted effort to make Russian scientific literature available to English-speaking biologists and English scientific literature available to Russian-speaking biologists. Most notable are his translations of the several volumes of the Mammals of the Soviet Union and the large number of reviews he did of Russian wildlife books that he published in the appropriate English-language journals. Bob was always a citizen of the world and had extensive connections and worked with colleagues throughout China, Europe, and the former Soviet Union. This was particularly courageous in the mid- and late 20th century when collaboration with Soviet colleagues was both rare and politically unpopular with both governments.

Bob had an amazing intellect, which was very much reflected in all aspects of his life and work. He was exceedingly bright yet always modest and humble. Sally recalls as a junior at Utah State he could discuss Russian music and Dmitri Shostakovich. Daughter Brenna Olivier recalls him as a dad who loved to meld his work and home, sitting with the kids at the dining room table, tossing puns into every conversation, doing his Smithsonian work while the kids did their homework. Bob read extensively; when they moved to Washington in 1986 he moved 13,000 pounds of books. He published nearly 250 scientific research papers and books.

He loved travel and conducted fieldwork throughout the world during his career, particularly in Alaska, Canada, the USSR, and China, including Tibet. He authored major sections (rabbits and squirrels) of the initial edition of Mammal Species of the World, an ambitious publication that he helped found (see Honacki et al. 1982). True to form, in the early phases of this project he encouraged others to participate while choosing to remain in the background himself, letting them gain experience in working on the book. It was only at the end that he took a much more active part in the book's preparation, taking the title of Coordinator, when in fact he acted as the Executive Editor.

Bob's sense of ethics and personal morality were defining characteristics of his life. He was not vocal about it, but as they say, his actions spoke louder than words. As an administrative leader he was known as a facilitator and problem-solver, a person who created incentives and inspired great performance but gave the credit to others. He managed situations quietly, working behind the scenes with insight and understanding, often taking a creative approach that revealed innovative solutions overlooked by others. He was respected and even loved by those who reported to him because he took the time to understand their issues and trusted their intentions and made himself an ally in achieving their goals.

Bob may have focused his scientific research on small mammals, but he also had exceptional insights into people. He was intensely curious about the humanities as well as the sciences, seeing them as equivalent ways of understanding our world. He was intellectually rigorous, honest, and just plain fun to be with. During his world travels he saw more conditions of nature and humans than most of us will ever experience. His temperament and worldly experience created a man of unusual tolerance who was genuinely open to new ideas and alternative values and different ways of living. He was always fun to be around because his view of the world was so wide open. He and his wife Sally loved to invite friends to their home to meet scholars from around the world. Sally has always been the epitome of graciousness, hospitality, and congeniality. As generous as she is expert in the arts, she donated a lifetime to supporting the arts and Bob's work. After an evening of Sally's cooking and intense conversation about faraway countries, science, music, art, and politics, guests departed more knowledgeable than when they arrived. Especially memorable were the annual celebrations of Groundhog Day.

Working closely with him on a variety of projects over the years, his colleagues appreciated his wealth of knowledge and immensely cooperative nature. He was a joy to work for in his administrative roles and had a knack for listening intently to everything brought before him, with resulting decisions that were always well thought out and balanced. As a colleague and collaborator, he was absolutely top-notch in all respects.

Most folks who worked with Bob, including those who worked with him for years, would say that they never saw Bob get angry in any situation or at least express outward anger. Bob would arch his eyebrows rather than curse, followed by a suggestion, an idea, or a question to ponder that would lead to a solution. The single instance that Timm can recall seeing Bob extremely irritated happened when he received a letter from a Russian colleague during the height of the Cold War that had obviously been intercepted, steamed open, and read. He snapped upon seeing that this personal correspondence had been read and resealed in an attempt to make it look like no one was spying on him. He then said something along the lines of “I hope that all these scientific names of shrews and ground squirrels really confused them, and why did they even bother making it look like no one had steamed open the letter.”

One of Bob's mottos in how he handled problems when dealing with people was “Will it matter in 5 years?” His equanimity is undoubtedly part of what made him so successful, both as an administrator and a student mentor. Bob would never take credit or boast. He tacitly shared credit where appropriate, allowing others to have the limelight. Bob was admired not just for his scientific acumen but also for his breadth of knowledge in nonscientific areas and his skills in working with people. He had a knack of making everyone around him feel comfortable, especially nervous students.

Additional details of Bob's life and career are included in Wilson (2010). We are grateful to many of Bob's former students and colleagues for sharing their memories of him with us. Bob Hoffmann will be missed by all who were privileged to know him and work with him over the years. In a sense he lives on in his publications and in the memories of family, colleagues, and friends who knew him and were changed by him. He will be remembered for fostering collegial collaborations worldwide. His was a good and complete life, one to which we can all aspire.

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