William Spackman
by F. Rich, L. Brant, G. Mitchel and J. Hower
from TSOP Newsletter 31 (2), June 2014
Professor William Spackman was the TSOP's first President elected by the membership. He was known internationally for his work in the characterization of peat and coal deposits, and the utilization of coals of all types.

William Spackman began his post-secondary education at North Park College in Chicago, where he received the Associate of Arts degree in 1940. He graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in botany from the University of Illinois in 1942. During World War II he served at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard applying biological research to marine wood preservation.

In 1949 he earned his PhD in biology with a major in paleobotany from Harvard University, where he worked under the guidance of Dr E.S. Barghoorn, investigating the peculiar characteristics of the Brandon Lignite; Vermont certainly is not known for its coal deposits, but the Brandon ended up being most significant from a paleobotanical point of view. Spackman spent his entire, and very illustrious career at Penn State, where he developed the Coal Research Section of the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences into an internationally acclaimed research facility.

According to a history of the Coal Research Section, written in the Penn State Geosciences newsletter by Dr. Spackman, summer 2003, the academic program took root from 1949-1951. Following establishment of classes in paleobotany, palynology, and coal petrology, there came a call from U.S. Steel Corporation in 1951 to assist in the analysis of metallurgical coke production; coke is used in iron ore reduction, and is produced entirely from suitable grades and compositions of bituminous coal. Thus began a decades-long and productive association between US Steel and the coal research group at Penn State. In 1955, the Coal Research Section became a reality, and proceeded to develop ties with Bethlehem Steel, Jones & Laughlin, Inland Steel, Youngstown Sheet and Tube and a variety of other corporations and agencies.

These U.S. steel companies embraced Dr Spackman’s maceral concept that sought to organize coal by rank and composition and employed the knowledge to improve coke and iron making operations. Industrial support, and more than 25 years of funding from the National Science Foundation led to a wide spectrum of research efforts, ranging from defining the petrographic characteristics of coking coals, to understanding the association of uranium minerals with lignites, to appreciating the historical development of peat deposits within the Okefenokee Swamp and the Everglades.

Among his many accomplishments William Spackman helped to establish the Catalog of Fossil Spores and Pollen, a research aid that included 44 volumes of illustrations and detailed descriptions of the known fossil taxa of spores and pollen; the Catalog was published at Penn State from 1957 to 1985. He also served as Chair of the Paleobotanical Section of the Botanical Society of America; Chair of the Coal Geology Division of the Geological Society of America; and was a member of the International Commission of Coal Petrology, serving from 1964 to 1975 as President of its Nomenclature Committee. Most notably, in 1980 he became the founding editor of the first research journal devoted to coal geology, the International Journal of Coal Geology.

Dr Spackman was probably best known to most coal technologists as a petrographer and organic geochemist. His publications in periodicals such as Fuel, Energy Sources, and the International Journal of Coal Geology reflect his long association with studies of coal characteristics and utilization. To many others, he is most associated with his work in the Florida Everglades. He was long a proponent of using those wetlands as a modern analog to environments of coal accumulation. In 1964, for example, he was senior author on “Environments of Coal Formation in Southern Florida”, a pre-meeting field guide published in association with the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America.

Later, a widely referenced publication appeared in a GSA Special Paper. That contribution, entitled “Geological and Biological Interactions in the Swamp-Marsh Complex of Southern Florida” helped to establish the ‘glades as a model wetland for understanding peat accumulation. This effort was expanded in 1974 when, once again in affiliation with GSA, and with the considerable assistance of Spackman’s former student, Dr. Arthur Cohen, and colleagues Drs. P.H. Given and D.J. Casagrande, a field guide was written and entitled “A Field Guidebook to Aid in the Comparative Study of the Okefenokee Swamp and the Everglades-Mangrove Swamp-Marsh Complex of Southern Florida”.

Spackman’s love of the Everglades never abated, and for many of us the image of him standing at the helm of the Mariscusas it sped across Florida Bay toward the Everglades is most enduring.