'Widow makers' give view of ancient plants

Sunday, September 15, 2002

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Old-time coal miners called them "widow makers." They are hard mineral formations that cropped up in seams of coal, damaged mining equipment and sometimes dropped from a mine roof onto the head of an unfortunate miner.

But University of Illinois Professor Tom Phillips, who knew the formations as "coal balls," saw something more than nuisance and danger in them. He saw a window on the world of hundreds of millions of years ago. Inside the formations were fossils of plants from the swamps of the Pennsylvanian and Permian ages, which ran roughly from 325 million to 245 million years ago, preserved in exquisite detail, right down to the cellular level.

Phillips discovered them personally as an undergraduate in his last quarter at the University of Tennessee. When he found out few scientists were paying them serious attention, his career path was set. After earning his doctorate, he took a job in 1961 at the UI because it had a program in paleobiology, the study of fossilized life forms, oriented toward a collection of approximately 4,500 coal balls.

Phillips also began collecting coal balls himself. Four decades later, the collection numbers more than 40,000. It fills a specially built warehouse south of the main campus.

"We got coal balls from most of the places where they found out they had coal balls," Phillips said recently. He was sitting in an office off the warehouse with Phil DeMaris, the Illinois State Geological Survey research-er he started working with in 1976 and a coal-ball expert in his own right who retired in June.

All over the world

Phillips, 70, showed no signs of retiring himself as he excitedly explained that the collection is the most representative in the world, as well as the largest. There are coal balls and coal-ball data from all over Illinois and the nation, from China, Russia, France, England and other places, collected by Phillips, DeMaris and colleagues.

In the former Soviet Union in the 1970s, Phillips received no mail and police monitored him. In China in the early 1980s, he was among the first Westerners allowed into the countryside where the mines were located -- mines pretty much lacking in anything like safety features.

It was somewhat safer in U.S. mines. Still, Phillips said DeMaris, a spelunker who started out in the geological survey coal section, saved his bacon a few times.

They hammered and pried coal balls from coal walls, hauled them out in burlap sacks, rolled the heavy ones along boards they brought as skids. Some, like legendary fish, were too big to move and got away.

Sometimes Phillips and DeMaris had plenty of time to work, but sometimes, they got a phone call and 24 hours to get a specimen out of the way.

"It's really remarkable," Bill DiMichele, curator of fossil plants at the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of Natural History and a former graduate student of Phillips, said of the UI collection. "The guy just has vision for this stuff."

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