In remembrance of a well-known and honored Maine geologist and paleontologist, the University of Maine at Presque Isle will host a memorial gathering for UMPI Emeritus Professor of Geology William H. “Bill” Forbes on Friday, April 13 from 5:30-6:30 p.m. in the Campus Center. The gathering is being held in conjunction with the spring meeting of the Geological Society of Maine, which takes place on campus earlier that day. Former students, colleagues and friends are invited to attend the memorial.
Forbes, who passed away in 2011, was a long-time geologist, accomplished field investigator, and internationally known researcher of Devonian paleobotony who taught at UMPI for more than 20 years. Officials said holding the memorial in conjunction with the GSM meeting seemed the appropriate thing to do since Forbes had such a significant impact on geologists throughout the state – and the greater science community – during his lifetime.
“Bill’s interests lay not only in teaching and research but really also in interacting with the community, the County, the state, and further afield,” said Dr. Stuart R. Gelder, Emeritus Professor Biology at UMPI and one of Forbes’ colleagues. “He was known internationally and made connections with so many people through his work. We know there are lots of Bill Forbes stories to be shared.”
Forbes was born in Bingham in 1931, grew up in Caribou, and graduated from Caribou High School in 1949. At a young age, he “fell under the spell” of Olof Nylander, one of the region’s best known naturalists. Forbes eventually followed in his footsteps in terms of his interest in natural history, specimen (especially fossil) collecting, and teaching. Interestingly, both were self-taught scientists; each had only a high school formal education.
Soon after his high school graduation, Forbes married his lifelong companion Warrena [Bugbee] Forbes and took a job with the National Cash Register Co. On his lunch breaks, he would explore outcroppings along the roadside and uncover fossils. These efforts served as the beginnings of his detailed geologic-paleontologic analysis of Aroostook County’s geologic history, and also led to a very important chance meeting.
One lunch break as he worked at a roadside outcrop, a van full of geologists pulled up. When they asked Forbes what he was doing and he replied that he was collecting fossils, they informed him that he wasn’t likely to find anything. Forbes then suggested to the scientists – hailing from institutions like the University of Connecticut, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the U.S. Geological Survey – that they take a look at some of the specimens he had in his basement that were gathered from spots around the region. They did pay him a visit and explore his extensive fossil collection, and thus began Forbes’ lasting association and friendship with many paleontologists throughout the country.
In his subsequent research work, Forbes educated himself in the biological science of classifying fauna and flora, as well as how to prepare them for preservation in scientific collections. Eventually, he apprenticed with a specialist in the field at the U.S. Natural History Museum in Washington, D.C.
“In the latter half of the 20th Century, there is hardly another person, armed only with a high school education, who became a self-taught leader in the field of paleontology and paleobotany,” it says in a brief history put together by some of Forbes’ colleagues.
Forbes has more than a dozen fossil species named after him, including a species of early Devonian vascular plant: Psilophyton forbesii. He was also a co-discoverer of one of the earliest sporangia-bearing small trees found in northern Baxter State Park: Pertica quadrifaria is designated as Maine’s official fossil and an artist’s reconstruction is on display in the Maine State Museum.
In 1970, despite a lack of formal college and graduate level training, Forbes was appointed a part-time lecturer at the Aroostook State College of the University of Maine (a precursor to UMPI). The glowing recommendations of his colleagues – from the University of Maine, MIT, University of Oregon, USGS, and elsewhere around the world – and their belief that he was qualified to teach in a college setting are believed to have played a major role in helping him to secure the position. Within a year, he had advanced to full-time geology instructor, and was promoted from Associate to full Professor of Geology in 1985.
During his time at UMPI, Forbes and fellow UMPI professor Charlton Loder established the Geo-Ecology Club. He also received an honorary D.Sc. degree from Ricker College in 1970. From that point on, and even after his retirement in the early 1990’s, his students always referred to him with affection as “Doc Forbes.”
The April 13 memorial will include an introduction by President Don Zillman and the reading of a testimonial – written by colleagues Dr. Gary Boone, Dr. Brad Hall and Dr. Andrew Kasper – while a slideshow of Forbes’ career cycles in the background. Those in attendance are invited to provide salient and humorous episodes of Forbes’ colorful life and career.
For more information about the memorial gathering, contact Ethelyn Boyd at 207-768-9525.