Dr. Loren C. Eiseley, and anthropologist who used the bones of the past as a telescope to the beyond, died of cancer Saturday in Philadelphia after an illness of several years.He was 60.
Internationally known as an expert on Darwinian theory. Dr. Eiseley had been associated with the University of Pennsylvania for more than 30 years both as professor and provost.
Yet it was less for his scientific accument than for his deeply reflective sense of the poetic in man that Dr. Eiseley was known to readers around the world. From the first of his 11 books - "The Immense Journey," with 500,000 copies sold - through his most recent - the autobiographical "All The Strange Hours," subtitled "The Excavation of a Life" - Dr. Eiseley used his anthropological disciplines to reflect on the vortex of finitude and infinity that he saw in every living being.
He graduated from the University of Nebraska in 1933 with a degree in anthropology. He took a master's in 1935 and a Ph. D. in 1937 from University of Pennyslvania and immediately received an assistant proferssorship at the University of Kansas, where he worked until leaving for a three-year stay at Oberlin College in Ohio in 1944. In 1947 he returned as a professor to Penn and remained there until his death Saturday.
He held various visiting professor positions at Harvard, Columbia, University of Kansas and University of Southern California, and received 34 honorary degrees from American universities. In addition to his campus work, he organized and led scores of expeditions throughout the country.
"I was born in the first decade of this century," he wrote in "The Night Country," "conceived in and part of the rolling yellow cloud that occassionally raises up a rainy silver eye to look upon itself before subsiding into dust again.
"That cloud has been blowing in my part of the Middle West since the Ice Age. Only a few months ago, flying across the continent, I knew we were passing over its customary place. It was still there and its taste was still upon my tongue."
He ws born in 1907 in Licoln, Neb. The incident that cut most deeply into his childhood consciousness just out from his writing solitary moments playing with dice in an abandoned house; planting crosses in a Lilliputian cemetery created in his back yard; stocking and aquarium. He entered the University of Nebraska to study zoology, but dropped out to hop freight trains around the country.
Forty years later, on a Metroliner bound from New York to Washington. Dr. Eiseley told a reporter seated next to him;
"Here's part of my secret. I did not graduate with my class. Those were the Depression years and my father died in 1923. I took courses when I could back in Lincoln. I was the world's original drop-out, staying one stop ahead of the truant officer. So I would work part time on some digs in Nebraska. I guess you could say I fell into anthropology. But my first published writing was some poetry I did."
Like any poet, words did not come easy to him. On the metroliner he would stare off into the space outside the moving car, transfixed as if he were watching the evolution of civilization. Occasionally he would offer some terse anaylsis of what there was the silence - to his companion, a burning silence of frustration, of wondering what it was that this man could see so clearly.
"You're not a fish, nor a fowl: you're a writer, and so God help you my friend," a colleague once told him.
Indeed, he took it to heart. "Have I made sufficiently clear all the burdens that a writer carries," he asks in "All The Strange Hours." The opening pages of the book paint the awkwardly subjective fears that race through his head as he stands in an auditorium, about to begin a lecture: the words of his talk exit smoothly from his mouth, while his past races before him.
He does not see the students in their chairs or the words he is speaking; he is in a boxcar, and another hobo is trying to force him to jump. This was the method of the man's mind: the crazy leap, the desperate search, the cosmic inference drawn from the banal occurance.
"The trick lies in making our environment conform it," he wrote in these pages 18 months ago when reviewing, five books on theory of evolution. "Modern science, one might say, projects fairy stories to which nature seems to conform.
This did not, of course, hamper the well-grounded scientific sensibility that Dr. Eiseley brought to his professional work. He could call a skull a skull, and found many in his time. In 1949, he made an important discovery of bones and artifacts that helped date the existence of the nomadic Yumas in Wyoming.
Still, he was a man who brought a personal mythology to objective phenomena. The skull he found in Wyoming was scientific evidence toward creating a theory about past existence. Yet it was also a charm, an icon, a religious object that sat in his study and offered a take-off point when he would try to set pen to paper. He knew the limitations of his craft as a writer and of his work as a scientist:
"The evolution of the entire universe - stars, elements, life, man - is a process of drawing something out of nothing," he wrote in "The Night Country," "The reality we know in our limited lifetimes is dwarfed by the unseen potential of the abyss where science stops."
It is perhaps a measure of the man that he realized before his death that his own end was in fact the ultimate paradox of his scientific vision. He ponders this in the closing chapter of out a dialogue between himself and between win and loss is insubstantial; it is the playing that counts.
He apparently realized this early on. In "The Invisible Pyramid," Dr. Eiseley recalls watching Halley's Comet blaze across Nebraska skies with his father.
"'If you live to be an oldman,' my father said carefully, fixing my eyer on the midnight spectacle, 'You will see it again. It will come back in 75 years. Remember," he whispered in my ear. 'I will be gone but you will see it. All that time it will be travelling in the dark, but somewhere, far out there - he swept a hand toward the blue horizon of the plains - 'it will turn back. It is running glittering through millions of miles.'"