Prometheus undone and historic evidence gone missing

This account of how British scientists in 2006 accidentally killed the world’s oldest known clam reminded me of a how a UNC Chapel Hill scientist in 1964 accidentally killed the world’s oldest known tree.

Felling the bristlecone pine that came to be known as Prometheus put geography graduate student Donald Rusk Currey at the center of intense criticism. But the incident led to greater protections for ancient trees and to the creation of Great Basin National Park in Nevada, thanks in part to Currey’s own lobbying of Congress.

He was professor emeritus of geography at the University of Utah when he died at age 70 in 2004.

Currey had been unaware of the age of the not-yet-famous tree until he took a pieced-together, polished cross-section back to his lab at Chapel Hill and counted its 4,844 rings.

I asked Barbara Taylor Davis, manager of the geography department, about the cross-section’s current whereabouts. “Dr. David Basile, who was Department Chair from 1967-1977, and retired in 1985, was the last known person with the slab,” she said.  “Unfortunately, he passed away in 1985…. I wish I could be more helpful — the department would love to still have ‘the slab’!”