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Obituary: Ralph E. Chapman

Article from: Newsletter No. 100
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In 1953 the Korean War ended, Dwight D. Eisenhower became the 34th President of the United States, Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor was crowned Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom, the first successful ascent of Mt. Everest was completed by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, the first polio vaccine was trialed by Jonas Salk (on his family), the structure of DNA was announced by Francis Crick and James Watson, the average price of a new home was $9,550 (£7,358 in 2019 GBP) and a gallon of gasoline cost 20¢ (15p in 2019 GBP). That year was also notable for one other important event, the birth of Ralph E. Chapman to Mary Blanche Ebener Chapman and her husband Austin Gilbert Chapman Jr. While Ralph didn’t become a diplomat, president, member of European royalty or a mountain climber, he did realise his personal dream of becoming a noteworthy professional palaeontologist, an innovative and forward thinking entrepreneur and a thoroughly decent human being.

Ralph Chapman in 1988 at the Michigan Morphometrics Workshop.

Ralph was a man of many talents, interests and enthusiasms: trilobites, technology, morphology, music, dinosaurs, museums, teaching, writing, science fiction, art, graphics, and 3D scanning to mention a few (in random order). But most of all Ralph was intrigued by people. They might be students, colleagues, mentors, friends, or opponents; it really didn’t matter. If your path crossed his, Ralph was interested. Who were you? What was your background? What was your take on the matters at hand? Indeed, what was your take on matters in general? And more often than not, in what ways could he engage with you productively? Thus, aside from being a scholar, an intellectual and a raconteur, Ralph was, above all, a people person.

His formal training was unusual. Ralph took his undergraduate (BA) degree at the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut graduating in 1975. From there, he moved on to a MSc programme at the University of Rochester where he studied trilobite palaeobiology under the supervision of Dave Raup and Jack Sepkoski. His flatmate at the time, Roy Plotnick, recalls:

“Ralph especially loved sitting in his big leather recliner reading, while at the same time watching television and eating (white bread torn up in milk is one I remember). He was a big fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs and had a complete hardback collection of the Tarzan and Barsoom novels. Ralph also had a distinctive sense of humor; to this day I remember his description of a micropaleontologist as “a real little paleontologist”.”

Another fellow student at the time, Kraig Derstler, notes:

"I remember one time when he joined me for a visit to my parents' home near Lancaster, PA. Years before, I found a tiny outcrop along a back alley in a York, PA ghetto. The outcrop was at the edge of someone's tiny backyard. The soft shale was filled with super-abundant Middle Cambrian trilobites. I mentioned it to Ralph and he exploded with that irresistible enthusiasm: an undescribed trilobite fauna... maybe new species... we can do it quickly... no problem... it'll be alright. We did a quick drive-by to pinpoint the site and decide on a plan. No one was in sight. We removed maybe a cubic foot of rock in a few seconds. I was relieved to escape with my life. But Ralph — he had a giant Ralph-sized smile on his face and that great, infectious laugh. On the ride home, he opened enough of the shale to confirm that we had many dozens (perhaps hundreds) of well-preserved articulated trilobites.”

With this academic pedigree Ralph was on the fast-track to ride the palaeobiology wave that was cresting in 1977-79, a role he prepared himself for by developing his interest and skills in numerical data analysis. However, as fate would have it, his aspirations hit a snag when the PhD programme he’d selected, at the State University of New York, Stony Brook, disintegrated while he was in residence.

Never one to be deterred by a setback, Ralph secured a Visiting Scholar Fellowship at Richard (Dick) Benson’s laboratory in the Department of Paleobiology at the National Museum of Natural History — otherwise know to us as “the Smithsonian” — in 1981. After completing his fellowship Ralph stayed on at the NMNH by accepting a position as a Museum Technician. From there he began what can only be described as a steady climb from the lower ranks of museum technical staff to the Directorship of the Smithsonian’s Applied Morphometrics Laboratory, a unit he founded, a mere six years later. While at the Smithsonian Ralph was joined by, and later married, Linda Deck, the love of his life whom he always referred to as “my lovely bride” throughout their long and happy marriage.

One of Ralph's UK colleagues, Dave Norman remembers:

“I spent two very enjoyable years as a Research Fellow at the Smithsonian Institution when Ralph and Linda were still working there. I'll never forget the fact that they were the first friendly faces I saw on arrival. They turned up at Dulles [Airport] to meet me, welcome me and convey myself and my bags to my digs in Alexandria: such a lovely couple, they just made me feel instantly 'at home'. Ralph was a constant presence while I was working at the SI and we would often migrate to one or the another's office for 'coffee' (well, in truth he'd be imbibing diet coke from the most enormous 'bucket' that seemed to be his constant companion) and a chat about progress, sport and music.”

I first encountered Ralph's name in 1982 when I was a graduate student in Texas with a keen interest in morphometrics, but no one locally who could teach me anything about it. One day a new issue of Paleobiology landed on my desk with a review article written by Dick Benson, Ralph and Andy Siegel: On the Measurement of Morphology and its Change. This review covered work that had been done on procedures whereby shape change could be expressed as the summed pairwise differences in sets of 2D landmark coordinates after they had been translated, scaled and rotated rigidly to positions such that differences in the locations of corresponding landmarks were minimised globally over the form using the least-squares criterion. Benson had used a previous version of this algorithm, which he referred to as Theta-Rho (or θ-ρ) analysis, in his investigation of shape differences in the ostracode genus Costa (Benson 1976a-c) and the algorithm had recently been extended by Siegel (Siegel and Benson 1982) to render its results robust to inhomogeneous deviations confined to one or a few localised landmarks. Geometric morphometricians will be more familiar with Theta-Rho Analysis by its mainstream mathematical name, Procrustes analysis, and with Siegel’s extension of this procedure as Resistant-Fit Procrustes Analysis, which remains the preferred method for dealing with datasets that contain evidence of inhomogeneous landmark deformations, better known as the “Pinocchio Effect”; a term Ralph coined. To that time I had trained myself in the procedures favoured by numerical taxonomists and the multivariate morphometrics school (see Blackith and Reyment, 1971) which was primarily concerned with the representation of morphology using traditional linear distance measurements. Dick, Ralph and Andy’s idea of treating landmark coordinates themselves as data was a revelation to me, though others were also experimenting with a variety of procedures based on this radically new type of data at the time (Younker and Ehrlich, 1977; Bookstein, 1978, 1980; Lohmann 1983).

Several years later, when I was working at the University of Michigan’s Museum of Palaeontology, I was invited by Jennifer Kitchell to help organise an NSF-sponsored morphometrics symposium that would bring representatives of all the various “schools” of morphometric practice together for discussions, presentations, workshops and (hopefully) assist in the forging of a synthesis that would serve the needs of researchers who wanted to analyse organismal morphology quantitatively. Ralph was the “representative” from the Theta-Rho (or Procrustes) school and that was my first opportunity to meet the man in person. The 1988 Michigan Morphometrics Workshop was the nexus out of which geometric morphometrics sprang (see Rohlf and Bookstein 1990) and, during those 12 days in May — some of which were quite intense — Ralph’s talents for engaging with people, teaching and explaining complex mathematical concepts in simple terms that even math-phobic systematists could understand were on full and repeated display. 

In the capsule histories of the grand “morphometric synthesis” that have been written to date, David Kendal (e.g., Kendall, 1984) and Colin Goodall (e.g., Goodall, 1991) are usually cited as the primary advocates of Procrustes analysis. To a large extent this is correct in that their mathematical treatments were the most advanced and, as a consequence, were the ones focused on by Fred Bookstein (1991) and others. But biologists were far more familiar with the work of Benson, Siegel and Ralph in the run up to the synthesis. I’ve long hoped that, when the full history of this advance is written, Ralph and his colleagues will get the credit, and the recognition, they deserve. 

Aside from publishing both his own research in the applications of morphometrics to (palaeo)biological, archeological and botanical, forensic and meteoritic problems, teaching, running the Smithsonian AM Lab, and collaborating with colleagues (especially students), Ralph could always be counted on to spot new developments in technology that would become important long before they became commonplace. To cite a trivial example, back in the 80’s Ralph was the first to tell me about this online book-ordering service he’d been using to find and buy inexpensive copies of classic, but long out-of-print, morphometrics books. It was called Amazon. Nigel Hughes also recalls:

“Ralph was an approachable and kindly mentor to generations of younger scientists. These included summer interns who went on to outstanding careers and post-docs like me. I learned much about hardware and software from Ralph that was critical to me when setting up my own lab, and our Aulacopleura koninckii work broke new ground in 'paleo-evo-devo' and led me on to other wonderful collaborations. Ralph as always warm and welcoming, and I enjoyed visiting his home with Conrad Labandeira and watching Ralph smack golf balls at a driving range: he had a formidably powerful swing. But my strongest memory was the sweet smell that flooded the morpho lab each week; every Friday lunchtime Ralph would slip out to buy flowers for Linda.”

Perhaps the best example of Ralph’s ability to spot important technological developments early was his advocacy of 3D scanning, not just as a tool for research, but also for educational and commercial applications. While Ralph made a number of important scans, by far his most famous project in this area was Hatcher, the Smithsonian’s Triceratops.

The NMNH Triceratops mount joined the museum’s Dinosaur Gallery in 1905 and, as the first “complete” Triceratops to be put on display anywhere, was an immediate hit, drawing large crowds of admiring visitors to its corner routinely, decade after decade. However, unbeknownst to the overwhelming majority of its fans, this mount was a composite, assembled from as many as ten different individuals (including one that was not a Triceratops), all of different sizes and levels of completeness. More importantly though, the mount was diseased — not with a virus or cancer, but with something even more damaging to one of the nation’s favourite fossils — pyrite disease. During all the years it stood in its gallery the Smithsonian’s Triceratops had been slowly and quietly deteriorating, a fact that became all too obvious in 1996 when part of its pelvis fell off! What to do? 

Enter Ralph Chapman who led a team of laser scanning specialists to save the Triceratops by scanning it. The scanning programme took years. But not only did it allow the bones to be recast and reassembled, size differences between different parts of the skeleton could now be corrected and the pose updated based on the best advice provided by Triceratops specialists. As a result of Ralph’s work this became the world’s first digital dinosaur (Chapman et al., 1999) and, following a contest in which children proposed various names for the beast, was dubbed “Hatcher” in honour of John Bell Hatcher, the palaeontologist who discovered Triceratops. Thanks to the vision and skills of Ralph and Linda (who was the project’s Exhibit Director) a commanding piece of the history of our field was saved from destruction so it could continue to inspire both interest in, and support for, our science.

Hatcher’s virtual skull with the different scans that became part of the reconstruction shown in different colours. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.

Ralph left the NMNH in 2002 to form the Idaho State University’s Idaho Virtualization Laboratory at the Idaho Museum of Natural History (, which maintains an active and innovative natural history 3D scanning programme to this day. In 2007 Ralph followed Linda to Los Alamos, New Mexico where she took up the position of Director of the Bradbury Science Museum ( Shortly after arriving in town, Ralph started several businesses: Eryops Consulting LLC, New Mexico Virtualization LLC, and Deck and Chapman LLC (the latter of which was involved in the 3D scanning of Sue, the Field Museum’s Tyrannosaurus rex). Since 2013 Ralph was also Vice President for Operations at the Los Alamos Business Incubation LLC. In addition to these professional activities Ralph always taught and served as a mentor to countless students, not only though his professional activities at the NMNH and various universities, but also more informally at meetings, conferences, symposia and by providing classroom lectures for students of all ages and at all levels.

The passing of Ralph Chapman, in addition to being a tragedy for his family and friends, was a loss to all palaeontologists because Ralph was one of those rare individuals who served not only as a vital contributor to our science, but also as an educator, technologist, developer, strategist, public advocate, successful business leader and general-purpose cheerleader. His enthusiasm was infectious, insight profound, and collaboration critical to the success of many projects more closely associated with others rather than himself. In his life his work wasn’t recognised with awards from professional societies or election to honorary positions. Ralph largely spent his time working behind the scenes and managed to get by almost solely on the basis of the joy he took from his work, along with the encouragement he received from family, friends, students and colleagues. All this was always delivered with Ralph’s characteristic grace, high spirits and indelible sense of fun. Ralph was one of the all around “good guys” of our field. He is, and will be, missed.


I’d like to thank Roy Plotnick, Kraig Derstler, David Norman, Nigel Hughes, Matt Carrano, Tom Jorstadt and especially Linda Deck for their contributions to the preparation of this article.


BENSON, R. H. 1976a. The evolution of the ostracode Costa analyzed by “Theta-Rho difference”. Verhandlungen des Naturwissenschaftlichen Vereins in Hamburg, 18/19 (supplement), 127–139.

BENSON, R. H. 1976b. Testing the Messinian salinity crisis biodynamically: introduction, Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, 20, 3–11.

BENSON, R. H. 1976c. Changes in the osracodes of the Mediterranean with the Messinian Salinity crisis, Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, 20, 147–170.

BENSON, R. H., CHAPMAN, R. E. and SIEGEL, A. F. 1982. On the measurement of morphology and its change. Paleobiology, 8, 328–339.

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CHAPMAN, R. E., ANDERSEN, A. F. and JABO, S. J. 1999. Construction of the virtual Triceratops: procedures, results, and potentials. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 19, 37A.

GOODALL, C. R. 1991. Procrustes methods in the statistical analysis of shape. Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, Series B, 53, 285–339.

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Author Information

Norman MacLeod - Natural History Museum, London

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