With two of his kids in the room with him, Desmond Harold Collins, died in Toronto on Friday, April 28 2023 of a dementia-related illness. He was 85 years old.

Des’s life was the life of a practicing Scientist, an invertebrate paleontologist who loved to collect fossils and whose work at the Burgess Shale (a World Heritage Site) in the Canadian Rockies fuelled the scientific publications of other more famous paleontologists. He was thrilled to see citations for his work showing up in Stephen Jay Gould’s books, for instance. He was also thrilled to host National Geographic and other TV crews when they took helicopters up to film Des’s excavation work. His most famous find – a one-of-a-kind fossil which he colloquially named “Santa Claus” –  he tucked in a handkerchief in his shirt pocket and carried around, gleefully, for weeks. While the recently opened “Dawn of Life” gallery at the Royal Ontario Museum was completed by his talented successor, Dr. Jean-Bernard Caron, it was started and passionately advocated for by Des during his long tenure at the R.O.M as a Curator. Des lugged huge slide carousels to international symposia, and visited other fossil sites in China, Russia, Texas and his birth country, Australia.

Fossils were his way of seeing the world. Fossils took him from Perth, Australia to his PhD in Iowa where he met his wife. Fossils introduced him to the communities of museum curators and amateur collectors. Fossils gave him the chance to mentor graduate students including (the now) Dr. Diego Garcia-Bellido. All three of his children knew that their Dad was at his most relaxed when striding through the Burgess Shale or Mt. Stephen camp sites.

Des’s devotion to fossils was made possible by having an independent-minded and supportive wife, Suzanne Collins (nee Reider). When she died in 2019, he lost the one person who could change his mind about anything and the one person who persisted in bringing the social world to him through dinners with his kids, outings with neighbors. He struggled without her. He repeated frequently at the end of his life that she was the best thing about his life.

Des leaves behind his three children, Kate, Matthew and Peter and his daughter-in-law (and fellow geologist), Dr. Leslie Reid. He also leaves behind his nephew, Neil Macpherson and Neil’s wife, Liz - both of whom went above-and-beyond in dealings with Des - and Neil Macpherson’s siblings, Ross, Ewen, Judith and Mericia as well as his ‘Collins’ nieces and nephews Kim, Mark, Allison, Diane, and his cousin, Jan.

There will be a Celebration of Life for Des at some point in the next year or so.  In the meantime, people who knew Des and want info from the family about his Celebration of Life can sign the online Memorial Book on this website. If you are so moved, please donate to the R.O.M.



Burial / Entombment / Cremation


June 08, 2023
Marianne Collins
I am so sorry to hear of this news. My sincere condolences to all of Des's family. I worked with Des for many years at the ROM mostly during the 1980s and 90s. He brought me along on his part of the ride that brought the Burgess Shale fossil story to the attention of the world and introduced me to Dr Stephen Jay Gould. I credit Des with guiding the focus of my museum artwork to paleo art. It was my honour to work with him on the Burgess Shale fauna, visit the Burgess Shale field camp, contribute to his collaboration on the Nature of Things "Impressions of Life" documentary and support his research publications with my illustrations. "Santa Claws" was the first project I worked on with him and my first fossil reconstruction from scratch. His contributions to paleo research are immeasurable. His legacy will carry on. I will miss him and his influence on some of the best years of my museum art career. Des Collins...Gone fossil hunting.
May 17, 2023
Neil Macpherson
Text of Notice from The West Australian Newspaper: COLLINS DR DESMOND HAROLD 15 July 1938 to 28 April 2023. 84 yrs. Retired ROM Paleontologist, passed away peacefully among family at Ina Grafton Gage Home Toronto Canada. Devoted husband of Suzanne (dec. 29 Sept 2019). Father of Kate, Matthew and Peter, Father in law of Leslie. Brother of Kevin (dec) and Joy (dec). Step brother to Rosemary and Maxine (dec). A very special Uncle to the family of sister Joy Macpherson. Des's accomplished life may have passed, but will be fondly remembered. Macpherson Families, Perth WA. Neil and Liz, Ross and Wendy, Judy and Joe, Ewen and Shirley, Mericia
May 16, 2023
Diego C. Garcia-Bellido (Univ. of Adelaide & South Australian Museum)
Dear Kate, Matthew and Peter: I am forever in debt to your father Des. If it hadn't been for him, I would not be where I am, doing what I do. He accepted me as a volunteer to dig with his ROM team at the Burgess Shale in 1995, then invited me to join him in the summers of 1997 and 2000, followed by a postdoc with him in Toronto in 2003-2004. He made enormous contributions to the Burgess Shale collections, even possibly surpassing those of Charles D. Walcott (one of his constant references, and whom Des admired). What I learnt from Des in those years, on how to excavate, study and describe Cambrian soft-bodied fossils is beyond words. I will miss him, may he Rest in Peace!
May 12, 2023
Chris R. Barnes
I am so sorry to hear of the passing of Des and I extend my sincere condolences to all of Des's family. We had many interactions together: as graduate students studying Ordovician fossils for our PhDs; when I was at the Univ. Waterloo for 16 years and would take the Paleontology class to the ROM to see the fossil collections and preparation facilities; later, when I would take students from the Unversity of Victoria on a trans-Cordilleran advanced field trip for over a dozen years that included a hike up the the Burgess Quarry where Des was invariably packing up his summer's camp (or meeting him in Field); and at many paleontological meetings/conferences. I was a Research Associate at the ROM for most of my time on faculty at Univ. Waterloo and work on conodont microfossils, similar to Peter von Bitter. His contributions to the evolution of Paleontology at the ROM are immense and timeless.
May 12, 2023
Dennis Waddington
I was honoured to know Des, and meet many of his family, through Janet's career as she worked with Des at ROM from 1972 through his retirement, and still afterwards connected at the ROM 25-Year celebration events. Sympathies and best wishes for support, peace and good memories go out from me to the whole Collins family. (I will be happy to make a contribution to ROM in his memory too.)
May 09, 2023
Ardelle Hynes
Dear Collins family: I lead the guided hike program for Parks Canada in Yoho National Park. While I never had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Collins, I speak of him often when guiding. I credit him with championing paleontological research in the National Park. Without his groundwork, perhaps the exciting new fossil sites in Kootenay never would have been found. Dr. Collins' work is alive and well! - or as alive as possible, being that they're fossils :)
May 09, 2023
Alejandro Izquierdo Lopez
I never managed to meet Desmond in person, but without his contributions to the Burgess Shale, research at the ROM would not have been what it is today, including my own doctoral thesis. His name will remain through time. Thanks, Desmond, rest in peace.
May 09, 2023
Joe Moysiuk (PhD student, ROM)
Des was a giant in Canadian palaeontology. His work and the collections he made at the Burgess Shale have left a legacy that will continue to bear fruit for generations. They have certainly had a huge impact on my own work. I was privileged to meet Des on a number of occasions at the ROM in his later years. His good humoured stories of the old days made for fascinating chats over a cup of tea. He will be greatly missed. My sincere condolences.