Obituary: Gerard Francis (Jerry) van Tets

23rd January 2014

Dr Jerry van Tets.

Dr Jerry van Tets (published in Australian Archaeology 40:56).

Gerard Frederick (Jerry) van Tets

Jerry van Tets died on I4 January this year, a few days short of his 66th birthday. A generation of archaeologists relied upon Jerry to identify any bird bones recovered in archaeological contexts—including those from Seton rockshelter, Malakunanja II, Early Man rockshelter, and sites in the lower Murray Valley, Tasmania or on the Bass Strait islands. In many cases, he worked behind the scenes—the person to whom the faunal analyst turned for help with problems in sorting out identifications. His expertise in identifying often intractable and fragmented archaeological material will be hard to replace. From 1988 Jerry worked part-time in the Osteology laboratory, Division of Archaeology and Natural History, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, The Australian National University. The obituary below is based on the eulogy read at his funeral by his son, Ian van Tets, with additions by the Editors.

After field work in Toronto, Louisiana and Belize, and after gaining a doctorate from the University of Amsterdam, Jerry moved to Australia to work for the Department of Civil Aviation, as part of a research team tackling problems associated with bird strike at Sydney airport. He went on to Katherine in the Northern Territory to advise the RAAF on similar problems there, and later took up a position as a research scientist with the Division of Wildlife Research, Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, in Canberra. Initially he focused on the behaviour of coastal and marine birds, such as cormorants, but gradually diversified into many areas of bird biology. During his doctoral research in Louisiana he had access to a large reference collection of bird skeletons. Jerry felt that the CSIRO would also benefit from a comprehensive osteological reference collection. The collection he started is now an important component of the Australian National Wildlife Collection and comprises multiple specimens of almost every species of Australian bird and a wide range of other vertebrates. His work led him into Australian palaeontology, to work with Pat and Tom Rich and Mike Archer and to his splendid book on Australia’s extinct vertebrates Kadimakara. It also led to an interest in the comparative osteology and taphonomy of bird bones found in archaeological deposits and from the early 1970s on he worked with archaeologists whenever the opportunity arose. He now has at least six books to his name—including a number written far the general public as he strongly believed it important that knowledge be shared and used. One cannot now work in either field without reference to his work. Jerry, along with his entire section, was made redundant from CSIRO in 1987 as part of widespread cut backs at this time. However, he continued to work on the Australian National Wildlife Collection and also began to work part-time in the Division of Archaeology and Natural History, The Australian National University, on archaeological material from Malakunanja II and from Cave Bay Cave and sites on islands in the Bass Strait. Jerry was diagnosed with cancer in 1988 and it was only due to his exceptional fitness that he survived so long. He was always a keen swimmer and until his admission to hospital, continued to attend the local gym at 5.30 am every day. He lived long enough to see his first grandchild—born on 6 January—and was very excited and happy to became ‘Oopa’. His mates found him a quiet and direct man, always reliable, always dependable and always ready to talk at great length about the biology and behaviour of birds.

Obituary: Gerard Francis (Jerry) van Tets
June 1995
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