Obituary: Bradley Livezey / Nationally respected expert on birds at Carnegie Museum
June 15, 1954 - Feb. 8, 2011
February 10, 2011 10:00 AM
Carnegie Museum of Natural History
Bradley Livezey, ornithologist at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, at his desk. He died in a traffic accident on Tuesday.
By Vivian Nereim Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
As Bradley Livezey drove along Route 910 Tuesday morning, he was a man at the peak of his career, a nationally known ornithologist who had produced mountains of research and was pursuing more.
A crash killed him almost instantly. Dr. Livezey, curator of birds for the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, was pronounced dead at the scene, less than a mile from his Pine home. He was 56.
News of his death spread swiftly, shocking his family and the scientific community. Wednesday, Dr. Livezey's colleagues said that the nation's ornithologists -- scholars who study birds -- relied upon his prodigious publications, sometimes controversial but never ignored.
"Everybody has to take his work into account," said Joel Cracraft, chair of the division of vertebrate zoology at the American Museum of Natural History. "There's no question about that, and they will for a very long time into the future."
The Northern Regional Police Department could not be reached for comment about the crash, a two-vehicle collision. Dr. Livezey died of blunt force trauma, the Allegheny County medical examiner's office ruled Wednesday.
Employed at the Carnegie since 1993, Dr. Livezey was considered by scholars to be one of the world's most knowledgeable bird anatomists. In particular, he was interested in the evolution of flightlessness: how a species, over time, loses the ability to fly.
He was a classic perfectionist, meticulous and orderly in everything he did, but he was also a man of contradictions, friends and relatives said.
A hard scientist who valued statistics and order, Dr. Livezey took artful black-and-white photographs and drew his own illustrations of avian bones.
He was brilliant academically, but sometimes struggled with daily tasks like buying groceries, said his sister, Alyson Hartmann, of Flossmoor, Ill. Once, when he was hungry, she suggested he order a pizza.
"He said, 'I didn't know you could deliver a pizza,' " she mused. "He didn't know you could pick up a phone and someone would bring food to your door."
And though Dr. Livezey spent decades delving into data, he loved watching birds outdoors, a pursuit requiring total patience.
"He'd know all the warblers, all the birds singing, by their call notes," said his brother, Kent Livezey, of Puyallup, Wash.
When the photographs came back from Kent Livezey's wedding ceremony, it was clear that Bradley Livezey -- the best man -- had been focusing elsewhere.
"Every picture we had of the ceremony, Brad was looking up at the birds in the trees," his brother said.
Born in Massachusetts in 1954, Bradley Livezey moved several times in his youth, developing an interest in birds as a small child, said his siblings.
It was soon clear that he had a special intellect, Ms. Hartmann added. In high school, he learned to speak fluent Russian, she said. Later in life, he filled his house with impenetrable texts, unaware of their complexity.
"He actually said to me one time, 'I read these books, and they seem so simple to me, I don't know why people bother to write it down,' " she said. "He was so smart."
In 1976, Dr. Livezey obtained his bachelor's degree from Oregon State University. He obtained his first master's degree at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in wildlife ecology, then a second at the University of Kansas, from the mathematics department. He finally graduated from the University of Kansas with a Ph.D. in systematics, according to his Carnegie biography.
Dr. Livezey produced much of his work in the developing and contentious area of systematics, or phylogeny: loosely, the study of how groups of species are related. While many scholars in the field now focus on DNA analysis, Dr. Livezey stood by a more traditional approach, basing his papers on exhaustive studies of the shapes and characteristics of bones.
"His work is going to be missed," said Michael Murphy, a graduate school office-mate of Dr. Livezey's and editor of the Auk, a quarterly ornithology publication.
"I don't think he had a majority of people behind his views, but nonetheless, it's always important to have alternative perspectives," Mr. Murphy said.
Dr. Livezey's systematics research culminated in the publication of the "Higher-order phylogeny of modern birds," a massive collaboration with another ornithologist. The two men used bird anatomy to construct a new theory of avian evolutionary history. Dr. Livezey's colleagues said this project, published in 2006 and 2007, was among his most impactful.
"No one up to that point has done what he's done, and I don't think anybody else will ever do it," said Dr. Cracraft. "The field's changed so much."
Dr. Livezey is survived by his brother and sister.
"He's left an amazing legacy," said John Wible, curator of mammals at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. "It's just unfortunate that at 56 -- who knows how much more there could have been?"