Obituary, November 2021

Emiliano Aguirre: A lifetime dedicated to teaching and research (1925-2021)

On the 11th October 2021 our dear Professor Emiliano Aguirre left us. He was 96 years old and most young archaeologists, geologists and palaeontologists new little more about him than his writings. Those of us who were lucky enough to have known him must bear witness to his exemplary work. Emiliano Aguirre devoted his life to knowledge and enjoyed an intense academic and scientific life. He learnt and taught from his cathedras at the Universidad de Zaragoza and the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, not forgetting his first geology lessons at the Escuela Técnica Superior de Ingenieros de Caminos, Canales y Puertos de Madrid (the Madrid Higher Technical College of Civil Engineering). He became research Professor at the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científica (Higher Council for Scientific Research) and directed the Natural Science Museum in Madrid for two years. His mind was full of theology, which he learnt when he was a member of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits), Geology, Natural Science, Philosophy, Archaeology and Palaeontology.

Such mental capacity belongs only to the few. Nowadays it is quite common and almost compulsory for PhD students to travel to other countries to study. But in the 1970s it was very difficult to leave Spain, among other things because there was no economic support for doing research abroad. Emiliano visited many countries gathering data for his doctoral thesis in palaeontology. When I asked him where he had learnt such fluent English he would say that on his trips. As easy as that. He met many famous scientists in the field of palaeontology and human evolution from around the world, although he never boasted about it. He would only sometimes talk about his trips to Africa to visit the mythical sites and about his conversations with such well-known characters as husband and wife team Richard and Meave Leakey.

The figure of Emiliano Aguirre will be studied by those who dedicate themselves to the history of science. But his scientific publications and research papers cannot transmit the warmth of his tremendous humanity and personality. Emiliano was a generous person, who gave his all for his students. A curious anecdote: while he was a member of the Society of Jesus he officiated the wedding of several couples in his team. His proximity to younger people was proverbial. He wanted to be another member of the group of students whose theses he was supervising. He did not feel above us just because he knew so much. Everybody approached him with great respect but he knew how to bridge the gap so that knowledge and friendship flowed.

Emiliano Aguirre had a savage temper when administration put him to the test. I give faith to this and share his bad temper when facing the endless paperwork needed to get the few crumbs left over for science. Bureaucracy is the enemy of action and progress. Emiliano had to fight to get his important projects —such as the site at Atapuerca— going. As a group of youngsters, we were lucky enough to accompany him on this project until he was forced to retire in 1990 because of the regulations of the time. But this did not mean he stopped working, not until his strength failed him. We have lost an exemplary scientist, a maestro of maestros and somebody who influenced the professional life of many people. We will remember him all our lives. RIP


José María Bermúdez de Castro is Research Paleobiology Programme Coordinator, CENIEH (Burgos, Spain) and Atapuerca Project Codirector