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Category 9: Short-form, well-known regional figure
Leigh Van Valen
"Now here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!"
--The Red Queen, from "Through the Looking Glass"
It takes a special scientist to name his evolutionary theory after an oddball queen in the hallucenogenic works of Lewis Carroll.
And Leigh Van Valen was.
As University of Chicago spokesman John Easton put it, he was "considered unconventional even by eccentrics."
Mr. Van Valen, a professor emeritus in the university's ecology and evolution department who was considered a genius in the field of evolutionary theory, died Saturday at St. Mary of Nazareth Hospital Center on the North Side of a recurrent respiratory infection. He was 75.
Mr. Van Valen published his "Red Queen Hypothesis" in 1973. It holds that all species are in a constant battle for survival, sometimes pulling ahead, sometimes falling behind, but always adapting, always mutating, a struggle for existence that never eases. The hypothesis -- later hailed as a benchmark notion of modern biology -- echoes the words of the Red Queen as she runs with an out-of-breath Alice in Through the Looking Glass.
In the same paper, he also discussed the law of constant extinction, sometimes called "Van Valen's Law." In it, the scientist posited that extinction is in no way linked to how long a species has been around -- a radical interpretation that continues to influence scientists.
"He was one of the top two or three synthetic minds in evolutionary studies in the second half of the 20th century," said Dan McShea, a Duke University associate professor.
Mr. Van Valen was born in Albany, N.Y. He received his bachelor's degree in zoology from Miami University of Ohio and his master's and Ph.D. from Columbia University, then did fellowships at Columbia, University College London and New York's American Museum of Natural History before joining the U. of C. in 1967.
He wrote or co-authored more than 300 papers and started his own journal, called Evolutionary Theory, to offer scientists a more freewheeling place to publish. That's where the Red Queen Hypothesis first appeared, on page 1 -- after being rejected by several leading journals.
Melissa Stoller, a U. of C. colleague, said students thought he resembled the fictional character Gandalf, and indeed he had a fondness for the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. He even called his lab the "Lothlorien Laboratory of Evolutionary Biology," she said.
Stoller said Mr. Van Valen's office -- a labyrinthine cave of a place filled with thousands of books -- was legendary.
"There would be small pathways you would have to weave your way through, and every student who came in would say, 'Have you actually read all these things?' " Stoller said. "Which seemed to be stunning. But once you got to know him, you realized he had read everything. That was a tiny fraction of what was contained in his head."
Mr. Van Valen decorated his office with figurines of animals and insects and had a motion-activated door sentry that emitted cricket chirps so he'd know if someone had entered the crowded space, Stoller said.
He was also a creature of habit. For one thing, there was his ever-present pocket protector. And his lunch. Every day, Stoller saw him eat the same unadorned meal: "a quart of milk, which he would drink directly from the container; a pound of cheese he would unwrap and eat directly from the block; and one banana."
Students who might have been intimidated at his intellect soon became fans. He contemplated their papers with gravity. "He would think so carefully about its potential, and what he saw in it," Stoller said.
And he was generous about lending them even rare books.
Mr. Van Valen is survived by his wife, Virginia Maiorana, and a daughter, Katrina. Another daughter, Diane, died in 1995. A memorial service is being planned at the U. of C.