In Memoriam: David Remsen. BHL has lost one of its key founding figures

David Remsen smiles next to a sign for the Marine Biological Laboratory uBio Program

David Remsen at uBio headquarters circa 2007. Photo Credit: Martin R. Kalfatovic

Last week, the biodiversity informatics community and BHL lost one of its most creative minds. David Remsen lost his lifelong battle with mental illness and passed away on Wednesday, December 14, 2022. As a staff member of the MBLWHOI Library working with BHL’s inaugural Vice-Chair, Cathy Norton, David’s innovative and groundbreaking work in taxonomic name finding (uBio) and parsing taxonomic index (Nomenclature Zoologicus) laid the groundwork for much of BHL’s taxonomic infrastructure powered by the Global Names Architecture.

David Remsen and Tom Garnett enjoy a meal with colleagues

David Remsen with BHL Founding Program Director, Tom Garnett. Photo Credit: Suzanne Pilsk

In 2006, at the Smithsonian meeting that formalized the creation of BHL, David, along with eventual founding Technical Director Chris Freeland, led the work that incorporated groundbreaking taxonomic bioinformatics in the eventual BHL user interface. That same year, he joined key BHL organizers at the TDWG meeting at the Missouri Botanical Garden that outlined the informatics components of BHL.

David stands with colleagues for a photo at the TDWG meeting at Missouri Botanical Garden

BHL Meeting, TDWG 2006. Missouri Botanical Garden. Photo Credit: Unknown

David’s technical prowess and knowledge of taxonomy was of invaluable assistance to the Smithsonian Libraries and Archives’ Index Animalium project. His indefatigable enthusiasm for all things taxonomy and science had him putting in extra work on this project leading Cathy Norton to comment, “Sorry folk, but I’m afraid I need to be the string on David’s balloon and reel him in a bit.” The work also generated the important article, “The use and limits of scientific names in biological informatics” published in Zookeys (Remsen 2016).

David Remsen takes his seat with other delegates at the 22nd GBIF governing board meeting

22nd GBIF Governing Board Meeting, Antananarivo, Madagascar, 2015. Photo Credit: Martin R. Kalfatovic

After leaving the Marine Biological Lab, David spent six years as a senior program officer at the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) where he continued to provide support and guidance for BHL. Notable in this respect was his ongoing work with the Catalogue of Life (CoL). It was at a 2015 meeting in Oostende, Belgium (with a follow up meeting at Naturalis in Leiden, Netherlands) that the ongoing relationship of BHL and CoL was solidified.

David speaks with colleagues on a boat at a meeting in Oostende, Belgium

David Remsen (far right) and Tom Orrell (center, ITIS/Smithsonian/EOL) center, in Oostende, Belgium. Photo Credit: Martin R. Kalfatovic

David Remsen stands with colleagues for a photo at the Catalogue of Life meeting in Leiden

Catalogue of Life Meeting, Naturalis, Leiden, Netherlands. Photo Credit: unknown

My memories of David, outside the “windowless conference rooms of the great biodiversity centers of the world,” as the BHL Founding Technical Director termed them, was walking the frozen beaches of Woods Hole (why did we only go there in winter?) or crossing over Eel Pond on our way to The Captain Kidd where so many philosophical informatics discussions took place. He had an amazing sense of humor, often imagining the conversation between the three figures in the sculpture, “The Scientists” (by Elaine Pear Cohen) outside his office.

Statue of three people sitting

The Scientists by Elaine Pear Cohen. Photo Credit: Martin R. Kalfatovic

His love of nature informed his life and work and I thank him for introducing me to Loligo peali (a species of squid) which linked Woods Hole to my own career at the Smithsonian (you will all have to look that one up!).

Returning to Woods Hole and to the MBL as manager and then director of Marine Research Services, David oversaw the collection, culture, and husbandry of aquatic species on campus, therefore playing a central role in MBL’s research and educational initiatives. He completed his career as director of Marine Research Services at the Marine Biological Laboratory.

David Remsen engages in conversation with colleagues at a conference table

BHL Members’ Meeting, MBLWHOI Library, Woods Hole, MA. David Remsen (left), Tom Baione (American Museum of Natural History, right). Photo Credit: Martin R. Kalfatovic

A full tribute to David is available from the Marine Biological Laboratory. The David Remsen Memorial Fund is taking donations in David’s memory.

Remsen, D. (2016). The use and limits of scientific names in biological informatics. In: Michel E (Ed.) Anchoring Biodiversity Information: From Sherborn to the 21st century and beyond. ZooKeys, 550: 207–223.

Avatar for Martin R. Kalfatovic

Martin R. Kalfatovic is BHL Program Director and Associate Director, Digital Programs and Initiatives Division, Smithsonian Libraries and Archives. As the BHL Program Director, Mr. Kalfatovic functions as the executive director and manager of the international consortium of over 80 natural history, botanical garden, government, and university libraries engaged in the mass digitization of taxonomic literature. The position also serves as a key contact for government, NGO, and academic leaders at both the national and international level. Within his role at Smithsonian Libraries and Archives, Mr. Kalfatovic is responsible for the Libraries’ active Digital Library program. This program includes the creation of digital editions of library materials, online exhibitions, and new digital publications.