Joseph Schieser Nelson died 1937-2011

nelson_1.jpgThe Man of Fishes, as many have called him, has left us and suddenly there is a gap, which no one can fill. The four editions of “Fishes of the World“ which he authored – the first in 1984 and the last one in 2006 – have been a base for modern ichthyology, the guides and the references to fish classification and a major tool for taxonomists, ichthyologists and zoologists and other workers in the treatment of all major fish groups. During the last four decades, no one in the field and study of ichthyology could work without Fishes of the World. Who will continue? I am afraid hardly anyone.

I never forget, when decades ago Friedhelm Krupp, Curator of Fishes at the Senckenberg Research Institute and Natural History Museum in Frankfurt am Main, the former scientific editor of aqua, called me (I was still living in Frankfurt) and said there is someone in the Institute I should meet. In a way I was very nervous when Joseph S. Nelson shook my hand and congratulated me for my research work; I was almost ashamed (who was I). Such a gentleman, a man who had done so much for the fish community world-wide giving me credit? Many years later he wrote a beautiful review of my book Bleher’s Discus volume 1, a compilation of my life-work on the genus Symphysodon Heckel, 1840, and other Amazon fishes (aqua 14 (2), April 2008).  

We had many encounters after that, mainly at ichthyological congresses world-wide and during ASIH conventions. At one of the latter in New Orleans, he introduced me to some of his Brazilian students knowing that it is my (almost) mother tongue. And while talking to them I asked him if he had a moment for me. I had been working on my book about the fresh and brackish water fishes of the world and asked his opinion on the higher classification of the family Channidae and why it is not placed (any more) in its own order Channiformes, where I believe it should belong and he suggested that I should write about it. I also asked him if he could have a look into my classification of fishes for this book. He immediately looked at my survey, gave me compliments and said if I wanted he would take a copy and write in the modifications as he was working on the latest classification. He did it at his home in Edmonton and a few weeks later it arrived. I appreciated his corrections and suggested alterations written in his tiny handwriting and I will keep these six survey pages until my last day and hope to be able to publish it.

There are two other international congresses I will never forget, especially not the ECI XII European Congress of Ichthyology in Cavtat (Dubrovnik) in 2007, in which he participated with his lovely wife Claudine. Joe gave a talk and actually pledged to go back to the traditional method of classifying species. He talked of the value of the biological species concept, for a stable classification (something today more than ever to be desired, especially due to those workers who want to base their new taxa on molecular findings only). One of the topics was “What should be stable in a classification?” and his answer was “It should not be the classification itself!” with many examples. This is something workers around the world should really take into consideration, this great man‘s pledge.

Our last get-together was during the 8th Indo-Pacific Fish Conference in Fremantle, Perth, Australia. There he went even further outlining the need for a stable classification of species, in addition he presented his new book (the 2006 edition) and suggested that all common names of fish species in English should be capitalized as a standard, as demonstrated in the latest edition of Fishes of the United States, Canada and Mexico.  

Joe was born on 12 April 1937 in San Francisco and his parents moved to British Colombia soon after his birth. At a young age he worked for Federal fisheries doing field work in many parts of Canada. In 1968 he started as an Assistant Professor of Zoology  at the University of Alberta and retired as a Professor Emeritus of Biological Sciences in 2002. Joe always enjoyed teaching students, supervising graduate students and doing research. About his amazing career and work Claudine has published a note and listed some of his very many awards, including the Artedi Lecturer Diploma, for outstanding and world-leading contributions in the field of the nature, interrelationships and distribution of fishes, at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Sweden, in 2008.

I keep as precious the last e-mail he wrote to me, on 12 May 2011:

“Dear Heiko, Thank you so very much indeed for your wonderful new volume of Bleher’s Discus.

I shall indeed enjoy it over next few months! I greatly appreciate your inscription AND the nice comment in Fig 1 legend. Yes, it is indeed a miracle that I am alive! I am being treated every month with a chemo called Vidaza. It has been a life saver! I am doing well – I just do not have the energy I used to have. However, Claudine & I are going to the 50th anniversary meeting of the Canadian Society of Zoologists in Ottawa. We leave on the 15th – my first plane trip in 2 years! I received a major award from this group last year when I could not attend so I felt I had better now! I will need wear a mask on the plane as my white blood cells are so low!

All the very best from Claudine & I, Joe”

Joe left us on 9 August 2011. He was a gentleman of that very rare breed, a man who helped not only me but so many others, who was always open to all requests – he wouldn’t deny anything to anyone. Joe probably helped the entire fish community as no one else has done. It is a great loss, not only to science, but to the entire world. Such a gentleman is very rarely found today. We all miss him.

Heiko Bleher, October 2011


Walter Ivantsoff, Friedhelm Krupp, Heiko Bleher, Joe Nelson, Nini Bogutskaya, Alexander Naseka in Dubrovnik, Croatia, at XII European Congress og Ichthyology (2007)


Friedhelm Krupp, Heiko Bleher and Joe Nelson at XII European Congress og Ichthyology. Dubrovnik – Croatia 2007


Fang Fang Kullander and Joe Nelson at 8. Indo-Pacific Fish Conference in Brisbane – Australia 2009



Ralf Britz, Sven Kullander. Heiko Bleher and Joe Nelson at 8. Indo-Pacific Fish Conference in Brisbane – Australia 2009

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