University community mourns loss of famed fish researcher

(Edmonton) The University of Alberta biologist who literally wrote the book on the world’s fish died after a lengthy battle with leukemia in early August. Joseph Nelson was 74.

Born in San Francisco, Calif. on April 12, 1937, Nelson’s family moved to British Columbia to work in a copper mine when he was eight months old.

Nelson had a childhood fascination with astronomy, but turned to fish as an undergraduate student at the University of British Columbia. Nelson obtained his bachelor of science from UBC while doing field work for the federal fisheries before taking up residence at the U of A to do his master’s studying fish in the Kananaskis River.

Nelson left Edmonton for UBC in 1965 to complete his PhD, before returning to the U of A in 1968 to take a job as an assistant professor of zoology.

Much of Nelson’s research on Alberta fishes was on pelvicless sticklebacks, but his discoveries would reach far beyond Alberta waters, as he described 15 marine fish species worldwide and co-authored the description of four more. Three living fish species and one fossil fish are named after him.

Nelson would also receive numerous awards throughout his career, including the honour as the only Canadian to receive The Robert H. Gibbs Jr. Memorial Award for an outstanding body of published work in systematic ichthyology, handed out by the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists.

Nelson also had heavy involvement in a number of conservation associations, most notably as a long-time member with the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, serving primarily on the Freshwater Fishes Specialist Subcommittee.

All told, Nelson would end his career with more than 100 publications to his name including two editions of Fishes of Alberta, and four editions of a family-level synopsis of the world’s 25,000 fish entitled Fishes of the World, which Jan Murie, fellow professor emeritus in the Department of Biological Sciences and friend to Nelson, referred to as the “Fish Bible.”

Fishes of the World has stood as the leading text on fish for more than 30 years, which is unheard of,” said Murie.

And while Nelson will be remembered in the public eye as a great fish researcher and one of the U of A’s most famous biologists, people who knew him personally remember him as more of a fishing buddy.

“Joseph was good natured, easy to get along with and seemed quite sympathetic to his students,” said George Ball, professor emeritus in biological sciences. “He was just a great person to be around.”

Nelson’s care for his research spilled over into a care for his department—serving as chair and associate chair of zoology, associate dean for the Faculty of Science and long-time curator of Ichthyology—and care for his students.

“He was a very entertaining teacher and was a good story teller,” said Mark Wilson, professor emeritus of fossil fish and friend of Nelson’s. “He made his courses enjoyable, he was a dynamic person and really good at making things come alive with personal anecdotes and lots of humour.”

Away from work, Nelson kept busy with a host of hobbies—including genealogy, a lifelong love of astronomy, and karate, which he taught for many years as a black belt Sensei at the Jewish Community Centre—and as a devoted family man.

“Joe was very generous, very kind, very honest and very friendly,” said Wilson. “He was one of the nicest fellows you would ever want to meet.”

A memorial for Joseph Nelson will be held at the Faculty Club on Sept. 30 starting at 3:30 p.m.