Remembering Erwin Zodrow

Every once in a while, if I’m in the microbiology lab in A wing at Cape Breton University, I remember the late Dr. Erwin Zodrow, walking by with a fossil or microscope slide in his hand. In his last few years of research at CBU, he had a geology research lab at one end of A wing where he worked with fossils he collected using “strong acids, man,” and a microscope in another “clean” lab at the other end of the hall. He’d drop in and say, “What you looking at, man?” as I prepared microscope slides for students. Much of his own research was microscopic.

Photo of a man with a fossil.

Erwin Zodrow (Photo by Paul MacDougall)

Erwin passed away just over six months ago, yet his work continues to be published in leading scientific journals. Last month, his co-authored paper, “A new marattialean fern Diplazites campbellii sp. nov. and its in situ spores from the Pennsylvanian of the Sydney Coalfield, Nova Scotia, Canada,” was published in the Review of Palaeobotany and Palynology 312.

Zodrow came to Canada in 1954, at the age of 20, from Germany to make a new start, since the post-war economy of his country was in ruins. He completed a geology degree at St. Francis Xavier University in 1962 while also working with the Iron Ore Company of Canada in Labrador.

He went on to complete a Master’s degree in economics at Penn State University, followed by a PhD from Western University in the new academic field of applied statistics with geological applications. In 1970, he began teaching statistics and computer science at St. F.X. in Antigonish three days a week and geology at the Sydney campus on the other two days, traveling between campuses by train.

He eventually was employed full-time to develop and teach geology courses at was then the College of Cape Breton. I met him in 1977 when I took introductory courses and labs in geology. He was especially interested in the history of geology and was enthusiastic about “Lyell and Hutton”—Charles Lyell and James Hutton, the 19th century Scots who developed the concept of “uniformtarianism” or the belief that modern-day geologic events provide a window into past events.

Students looked forward to Zodrow’s labs. It was here he let his hair down, played opera and classic albums on the record player and introduced everyone to the world of sedimentary rocks and coalfield fossils. We brought our own hard rock albums to lab.


Due to the proximity of coalfields and fossil locations, Zodrow’s research led him to palaeobotany (plant fossils). Fossils, per Zodrow, were “anything you can dig up that doesn’t smell.” He spent considerable time digging extinct plant fossils out of the exposed Cape Breton shorelines and from strip mines, “a plant graveyard… where you have to be there when the rock is exposed, because soon it will be reclaimed and filled in.”

Zodrow had an amazing knowledge of history, science and geology and was comfortable in a classroom, laboratory, library or coalmine. He retired from teaching at the University College of Cape Breton in 1999, the same year I began teaching there, and was appointed UCCB’s first Professor Emeritus. At that time, his teaching and research labs were across the hall from the microbiology lab. Our teacher-student relationship soon changed to one of colleagues and I saw him often.

According to Zodrow, the role of the palaeobotanist is to piece together what life probably looked like in the past. “The attachment of reproductive organs to foliage, this is what you look for.” One of his greatest pieces of palaeodetective work was the discovery of a fossil with an ovule (seed) attached to a section of plant. In all the world, only five such fossils have ever been recovered and Zodrow found one of them.


In 2003, the National Sciences and Research Council recognized Zodrow for successfully obtaining 25 consecutive years of research grants, a near Canadian record. In 2021, he was awarded the Gesner Distinguished Scientist Medal from the Atlantic Geoscience Society.

Upon his death, Zodrow had published 179 research papers, received 59 research grants, collected some 15,000 specimens and named 11 new species—including Diplazites campbellii, named for Dr. D.F. Campbell, the first president of the University College of Cape Breton.

Explaining the etymology of Diplazites campbellii, the journal article says:

Dr. Campbell was the most ardent and consistent supporter of the fossil collection, especially for the early years and helped E. L. Zodrow build the extraordinary palaeontological collection.

Photo of a man standing next to a stained glass window.

Rev. Dr. Donald Campbell

Erwin Zodrow probably is, and most likely will remain, CBU’s greatest and most prolific peer-reviewed published researcher. His contributions to palaeobotany are known around the world. Josef Pšenika, Ph.D, head of the Centre of Palaeobiodiversity at the West Bohemian Museum in Pilsen, Czechia, former Ph.D student and longtime research collaborator of Zodrow’s, says “There is still a lot of scientific data yet to be published where Erwin will be a co-author.” Pšenika regards Zodrow as his “palaeontological father.”

After 40 years of fossil collecting Zodrow once said to me:

Let me tell you man, you have to collect with an open mind, because you only find what you find.

Zodrow’s dedicated and painstaking field and lab work will continue to be published in the coming years, thanks to Dr. Pšenika and other colleagues in the fossil world.

Dr. Erwin Zodrow died at the age of 87 on 1 December 2022.

He was still doing research close to the end of his time.


Paul MacDougall


Paul MacDougall is a Senior Instructor in Health Sciences at CBU, a writer, playwright and radio interviewer for The Coast 89.7 FM. He is interested in green infrastructure, ecological design and urban forests, and enjoys the outdoors, all seasons round. He can be found @franeymountain, literally and virtually.