J Sherman Bleakney: Father. Educator. Naturalist. Author. Born Jan. 14, 1928, in Corning, N.Y.; died Oct. 25, 2019, in Wolfville, N.S., of medically assisted death; aged 91.
Sherman Bleakney spent his early years in Boston where his father was a Baptist minister, but summers were whiled away in his father’s hometown of Wolfville, N.S. The family moved back to Wolfville before Sherman entered high school, and there blossomed his insatiable curiosity for all things that flew, walked, crawled and swam. As a teenager he became an accomplished taxidermist – his room was a menagerie of stuffed birds, mammals and reptiles. Word of this teen’s passion spread through the naturalist community, and before long Sherman was granted a rare licence to collect specimens for the Nova Scotia government.
He studied biology at Acadia University, where, among other accomplishments, he put a frog down the lab coat of fellow biology student Nancy Tyler just to get her attention. It worked – they married in 1952. Sherman went on to do his PhD at McGill University.
The couple moved to Ottawa when Sherman became the curator of herpetology at the National Museum, eventually earning the epithet “Father of Canadian Herpetology” for his numerous discoveries and publications. Their children, Jill and Peter, were born in Ottawa but, in 1957, when a biology professorship opened up at his alma mater, the Bleakney clan returned to Wolfville.
At Acadia, Sherman focused his attention on the massive leatherback sea turtles. He was the first biologist to do any meaningful research on Nova Scotia leatherbacks. One day he brought his son to a farmer’s field where a dead turtle waited. He nearly ripped the bumper off his car trying to flip it over to begin dissection. Later, parts of the animal would end up buried in his wife’s English perennial garden (the best way to clean bones, he said), which gave it a vaguely oily smell for years afterward.
When not at work, he was home making neoprene wetsuits for Peter and Jill so they could join him on fascinating (and numbing) Nova Scotia snorkelling adventures. He took the family on canoe trips, two treks across North America (by station wagon and tent) and a year through Europe while researching his beloved sea slugs – which became his focus of research for the rest of his career. His extensive collection of specimens and related literature now resides at the Royal Ontario Museum.
As a firm believer in following one’s passions, Sherman was supportive of his children’s interests that markedly veered from his own. He bought his 15-year-old son a 1968 Austin Mini to tinker with and also supported his rock-band aspirations. When Jill’s interests switched from biology to anthropology and then medicine, he stood behind her, too.
Perhaps Sherman’s greatest passion was teaching – his theatrical anatomy lectures were legendary. In 1987, he was given the Acadia Alumni’s Award for Excellence in Teaching.
Nancy died in 1999 from cancer, then a few years later, while on an excursion in Egypt, Sherman met the second love of his life, Elizabeth Walter. They spent 15 years traveling the world together.
In retirement, Sherman embarked on a 10-year archaeological journey wherein he figured out how 18th-century Acadians reclaimed tidal marshland for farming. His book, Sods, Soils and Spades, was instrumental in Grand Pré, N.S., being declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Sherman’s motto was “always anticipate.” Everything was planned in advance and if something was not done properly or needed fixing, he did it himself – Sherman did not suffer people who procrastinated or did a sloppy job. When Sherman could no longer walk the shores of his beloved Minas Basin or read his scientific journals and, as he said, felt he had contributed all he could to our understanding of this amazing planet, he chose medical assistance in dying.
Jill and Peter were at his side on his last day, and they received one final biology lesson that included a wish list of research that was yet to be done.
Peter Bleakney is Sherman’s son
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