Paleontologist Barbara A. Bedette; Specialized in Cenozoic Mollusks

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 5, 2006

Barbara Audrey Bedette, 73, whose interest in snails, clams and other mollusks reached back 65 million years, and whose work is likely to benefit scientists for generations to come, died of acute leukemia Feb. 23 at George Washington University Hospital. She was a Washington resident.

For 52 years, Miss Bedette worked for the U.S. Geological Survey's paleontology and stratigraphy branch. She specialized in Cenozoic molluscan paleontology, a science that uses fossils to study life in the past.

She neither described new species nor published groundbreaking research on a particular animal population, but her work is broadly used by research and field scientists who do just that. Miss Bedette painstakingly created a reference file of 30,000 index cards for Atlantic and Gulf Coastal Plain Cenozoic mollusks. She also systematically arranged the huge national collection of Cenozoic mollusks at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, a half-mile of drawers filled with hundreds of thousands of specimens.

"What it amounts to is that over the years, there have been many scientific papers describing new species," said Thomas R. Waller, the Natural History Museum's curator of Cenozoic mollusks. "The literature is really scattered in many different journals, some known and some unknown. It's really the obligation of anyone wishing to describe a new species to make absolutely sure it's not been described before."

Colleagues described Miss Bedette as an unassuming, quiet woman with an uncanny feel for the relevant or unusual bit of information in her field. Although she worked for the U.S. Geological Survey, her office was at the Natural History Museum, and she worked closely with its scientists. "She had a remarkable insight for flagging things that I was indeed interested in, but I was surprised that she knew I would be interested in," Waller said.

She was born in Conneaut, Ohio, and was a geology graduate of Bowling Green State University in Ohio. She moved to Washington in 1954 and worked for several scientists who are legendary in paleontology, including Harry S. Ladd and Wendell Woodring, for whom she did proofreading and indexing in the era before desktop computers.

After her retirement in 1988, she continued to work at the Natural History Museum and compiled a library of descriptions of more than 7,000 of the world's known fossils and living scallops, a task she had nearly completed before she died.

She enjoyed domestic and foreign travel, loved the outdoors and enjoyed field work, including scuba diving. She was awarded USGS's Scroll of Honor and the Natural History Museum's Peer Recognition Community Award.

She also worked on a small business, Butterfly Alphabet Inc., with longtime friend Kjell Sandved of Washington.

She has no immediate survivors.

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