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Charles Sibley

Charles Sibley (1911 - 1988) was an American ornithologist and molecular biologist. He had an immense influence on the scientific classification of birds, and the work that Sibley initiated has substantially altered our understanding of the evolutionary history of modern birds.

Educated in California, he did his first fieldwork in the Solomon Islands during World War II before returning to the USA. He became director of the ornithological laboratory at Cornell and then the Peabody Museum at Yale.

Sibley developed an interest in hybridisation and its implications for evolution and taxonomy and, in the early 1960s he began to focus on molecular studies: of blood proteins, and then the electrophoresis of egg-white proteins.

By the early 1970s Sibley was pioneering DNA-DNA hybridisation studies, with the aim of discovering, once and for all, the true relationships between the modern orders of birds. These were highly controversial to begin with, and regarded by colleagues as anything from pure snake-oil salesmanship on the one hand to Holy Writ on the other. With the passage of time and ever-improving laboratory methods, the balance of scientific opinion has shifted closer to the latter interpretation, though the picture is by no means clear-cut and simple.

During the 1970s, Sibley was a highly controversial figure in ornithological circles, for both professional and personal reasons. His friend Richard Schodde, writing Sibley's obituary in Emu[?], commented that he was:

a rebel with a cause. In argument he would bulldoze through, brooking no contradiction. Critics were baited with an acid tongue, and, in fits of temper, he could be a cruel mimic. In short, lesser mortals were not tolerated easily and, as has been said by others, collegiate friends were few. ..... I never found him malicious or vindictive, even against those who had tried to bring him down. Nor was he particularly sophisticated or cultured, just a big, up-front Yank possessed by 'the big picture' in avian phylogeny and convinced of the righteousness of his cause and invincibility of his intellect.

Sibley became estranged from his American co-workers for a time and corresponded with overseas colleagues extensively. But by the mid to late 1980s, Sibley's ongoing work had reversed the trend. His revised phylogeny of living birds in the light of DNA analysis, published in various forms between 1986 and 1993 was both controversial and highly influential.

In 1990 Sibley was elected President of the International Ornithological Congress. His landmark publications, Phylogeny and Classification of Birds (written with Jon Ahlquist) and Distribution and Taxonomy of Birds of the World (with Burt Monroe) are among the most-cited of all ornithological works.

Sibley's sequence has been taken up largely unchanged by the American Ornithologists' Union, and although the equivalent bodies in other countries have not adopted it in toto, it has been a major influence.

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