Norman Platnick, the ‘Real Spider-Man,’ Is Dead at 68


Norman Platnick was having no luck with millipedes.

He was 16, a senior in college (yes, he started at 12) and was interested in a fellow biology student named Nancy, who was “very interested in millipedes,” he recalled.

It was 1967, and they were taking a class on arthropods and needed specimens. But, he said: “I was a lousy millipede collector. There would be nothing in my jar but spiders.”

He examined one of the spiders “for a few hours,” he said, and was able to identify it as part of the genus Cicurina. “So I said: ‘That was kind of fun. Let me try another.’ And I just never stopped.”

Dr. Platnick would become a world authority on spiders — and the husband of Nancy Stewart Price. He died on April 8 in a hospital in Philadelphia at 68. The cause was complications from a fall in his home, said his son and only immediate survivor, William Platnick.

Dr. Platnick was curator emeritus of the division of invertebrate zoology for the American Museum of Natural History in New York, which holds the world’s largest spider collection. He added 158 genera and 2,023 species to the taxonomic database, and helped expand the known world of spiders to 48,000 species.

In the press, Dr. Platnick was often referred to as the real “Spider-Man,” especially when movies featuring the comic-book webslinger had their premieres. The museum would hold publicity events to promote its “Spiders Alive!” exhibition, and invite the stars who portrayed Spider-Man’s alter ego, Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire in 2007 and Andrew Garfield in 2012).

He traveled the world for his research, including going on arachnological expeditions to Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, Cuba, Panama, Australia and New Zealand. The trips could be perilous.

During one trip to New Caledonia, Dr. Platnick fell down a mountain and, injured and disoriented, got lost in the forest below. It took the local authorities two days to find him. “We didn’t know he was missing,” William Platnick said, until someone from the research team called to say, “We found Norm.”

In his research, Dr. Platnick focused on Oonopidae, a family of tiny arachnids also known as goblin spiders, which generally measure less than two millimeters in length. He was deeply concerned about a loss of biodiversity with the encroachment of human development. He spoke of visiting sites in Chile and returning some years later.

“In many cases you go back to the very same spot and you realize there used to be a forest,” he said. “It’s not there now.”

Norman Ira Platnick was born on Dec. 30, 1951, in Bluefield, W.Va., to Philip and Ida (Kasczeniewski) Platnick. His father was a Jewish immigrant from Poland. Dr. Platnick was “culturally Jewish,” his son said, but nonpracticing; he converted to Christianity later in life.

He attended Concord College in Athens, W. Va., after finishing seventh grade. He received his bachelor’s degree in biology at 16, a master’s in zoology at 18, from Michigan State University, and a Ph.D. in biology from Harvard University in 1973, when he was 21.

He joined the American Museum of Natural History later that year, and made important contributions to the field of cladistics, which categorizes species along the lines of shared characteristics to build evolutionary trees. Today, the method is so well established that the museum’s dinosaur halls are organized according to evolutionary ties, and the cladistic trees are inlaid in the floor.

Dr. Platnick’s published research included 330 scientific papers and six books. He was made a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2003.

Norman and Nancy married in 1970; she died in 2013. During their four-decade marriage, he continued to embraced his wife’s fascinations; together, they collected vintage electric mixers and other kitchen appliances, as well as works of early 20th-century American illustrators. He self-published art books under the imprint Enchantment Ink.

“He had 3 passions in life,” his son said. “My mother, spiders and collecting.”

He also had four genera of spiders named for him — Platnickia, Platnickina, Platnicknia and Normplatnicka — as well as 48 species of spiders, other arachnids and a millipede: Apodigona platnicki Shear.



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