Ralph Edwin Crabill (1925 - 1992)

Our science has lost one of the last remaining generalist in taxonomy of Chilopoda. In the 66th year of his life, Ralph Crabill succumbed to cancer on 16 January 1992, at Silver Spring, Maryland.

Ralph was born on 3.9.1925 in Chicago, Illinois, but spent most of his childhood in Jamestown and Elmira, New York. His undergraduate and Ph. D. degrees were taken at Cornell University, the latter under the direction of hymenopterist V.S.L. Pate who was an important influence and role model. A childhood interest in Coeloptera was replaced by Chilopoda in the Cornell years, apparently at the instigation of Pate, and the doctoral thesis was a faunistic treatment of the centipeds of northeastern North America.

During his graduate years, Ralph taught courses in Biology and German at the nearby Ithaca Colege. In 1953 he accepted a position at Washington University, a Jesuite school in St. Louis, Missouri, where he taught for three years and met his wife Mary. In 1956 he was hired by the U.S. National Museum to curate the collection of myriapods and arachnids, a position which he held until retirement in 1983.

Begining in 1948, he and I began a correspondence which ran on until his final letter of 28 December 1991, announcing the diagnosis of his terminal illness. Ralph was a tireless writer of Voltairean scope, as in addition to subjects of mutual scientific interest, he enjoyed annotating a vaste range of social and philosophical observations in typewritten letters often 10 or 12 pages in length. My own file of Crabilliana is more than 200 cm in thickness, and I was only one of many friends to whom he wrote.

In the years 1960-1966, he made a number of visits to European museums ans was able to enjoy an indulgence of his pronounced Germanophilia. He spoke fluent, dialectic German, was authoritative in German art, music, history, and philosophy, and I feel sure that München (or Baravia in general) was his favorite part of the world. Curiously, after 1966 he discontinued his travels on the continent despite frequent opportunities.

In the early part of his career, Ralph was an energetic worker in both field and laboratory, and often joined me for collecting excursions in the Virginia mountains. During his first year in the U.S. National Museum, he normally worked 12-hour days, often including weekends as well. After the middle 1960s, a noticeable loss of interest set in, owing perhaps to ramifying problems of health. Always with a long history of depression, Ralph eventually became reclusive and was beset with a wide spectrum of physical and emotional disorders wich led to the decline of his scientific activity and eventual retirement from government service.

Despite working with all orders of Chilopoda, Ralph had a special fondess for Geophilomorpha, the subject of most of his 80-some scientific papers. He realized from the very beginning the importance stabilizing nomenclature by the study of poorly-known species from material, a view which generated his visits to European museums. Despite our work with different classes, we shared admiration for Pocock, Cook and Brölemann, respect for Attems, and ambivalent feeling for Verhoeff and Chamberlin. Ralph did not publish any large systematic or faunistic papers, but early in his years at Washington intented to revise the Geophilomorpha on a grand scale.He accumulated enormous materials onloan from museums all over the world and perhaps the sheer magnitude of his self-appointed task at hand contributed to the decline of his scientific activity. Ralph was both very conservative and a perfectionist, and very afraid of making a mistake in print. Therefore uncertainties over really trivial details would often delay the course of his work. Possibly judgement of the future will decide the numerous refinements in anatomical terminology, interpretation of the pedal spurulation of lithobiomorphs, and redescriptions of old types, to be his most important contributions to Chilopodology.

Ralph is survived by Mary L. Crabill, his wife of 35 years, three children, and five granchildren. His scientific work is recorded in the pages of 80 papers on chilopods, but colleagues will regret the loss of his vast unrecorded knowledge of his subject. The erudition, artistic temperament, and often fascinating personnality of this complex, gifted, and sometimes troubled man will be fondly remembered by those friends who had the good fortune to know him in happier times.

Richard L. Hoffman, Virginia Museum of Natural History, 28 January 1992
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