Lewontin lab pictures

June 19, 2017 • 7:30 am

Instead of readers’ wildlife photos today, let’s look at some old pictures of Dick Lewontin‘s lab at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology (MCZ). Andrew Berry is putting together a collection of lab photos for Dick, who turned 88 this year, and here’s some of his finds. I can hardly believe that so much time has passed, for when I was in his lab Dick was substantially younger than I am now. I was a grad student from 1973-1978, beginning when Dick was only 44 but already one of the world’s premier evolutionary geneticists. Here’s how he looked when I began at Harvard. I don’t recognize the equations, but some of you will.

Lewontin wore the same outfit nearly every day: a blue work shirt, khaki pants, work boots, and a green sweater in winter. One might think he was showing solidarity with the working class, for Dick was a diehard Marxist. One day I found a tag that had fallen out of one of his work shirts; it read “Brooks Brothers Gentleman’s Work Shirt.” I am not making that up. Dick did have a upper-middle-class background: his dad was in the garment trade, and Dick had a French-speaking nanny. He went to Harvard as an undergraduate, flunked out as a freshman, and Harvard made him work a year in the business world before they’d let him back in, It was such a horrible experience, Dick said, that he vowed never to have a “real” job. The rest is history.

Picture below: Top row: me in my hirsute halcyon days, with Greg Mayer, whose writings you read here, on my left. Bottom row: Fred Cohan (now a prof at Wesleyan) and Rod Norman.

A group of my friends in the lab. Left to right, Rama Singh (my officemate at Harvard, now a prof at McMaster), Ann Litke (the lab secretary, holding vials of flies), Don Hickey (prof at Concordia University), and me.

Top left to right: Russ Lande (Imperial College), Harold “Swamp” Lee, who made the fly medium, and Alex Felton, the lab technician. Bottom row: Don Wallace, postdoc, and me in Rasputin mode.

Grad students cleaning the lab: Tim Keith (with gloves; and yes, she was a woman named Tim), Marty Kreitman (now my colleague at Chicago), and David Glaser.

Dick sleeping on the lab couch after a hard day. I’m pretty sure I took this photo (this is a photograph of an old, wrinkled print):

Fellow grad student Marty Kreitman, who was an avid cyclist and remains so now. He was the first to publish a population-genetic analysis of DNA sequences among several individuals within a species.

Dick outside his office. It was in this office, late one evening, that he caught me completely nude. I had disrobed to play a trick on Russ Lande, who, like me, was studying late, and I went into the Boss’s office, right by Russ’s, to get naked, knowing that Dick NEVER came in in the evenings. Sadly, that was one of the very rare evenings he did, and when he flipped on the lights in his office I was standing there without a stitch on. I had some ‘splaining to do! But I told the truth, and Dick just laughed.

He has a light beard here, and grew a beard for part of my time at the MCZ. Note the signs on the door.

Below: the lab about when I was there (I may have taken this photo). Several of us schlepped that huge moose head from the MCZ attic to the lab, where Ken Weber later affixed it to the wall outside Dick’s office with heavy bolts and screws. It remained a fixture in the lab for decades, and when Dick retired and took an office on the first floor of the MCZ Labs, the moose went with him, where it still hangs.

Bottom: Tim Keith, Dave Parker, Eliott Sober, Sally Levings, J. M. Rendel (visiting prof), Fred Cohan (with water gun), Kebn Weber. Above Tim is Bill Marks (deceased) and an unidentified woman. To our right of antlers, Doreen Lewis. Behind antlers in top row, left to right: Rod Norman, Becky Jones, Lisa Brooks, Unknown Man, Marty Kreitman, Lewontin with Einar Árnason (over Dick’s head), and a woman who we can only remember as being named “Donna.”


Dick computer-reading a DNA sequencing gel (this may have been posed, as he rarely did such analysis):

A later photo, after I’d left the lab, with the moose head on the wall. The only people I know here are Doreen Lewis (lower center), and Andrew Berry to her left, who’s holding a beer (a characteristic pose):

Finally, left to right:Einar Árnason, Amanda Benson (back turned), David Rand, Dave Parker, and Andrew Berry (again with a beer). I believe this photo was taken during “DickFest,” the party to celebrate Dick’s achievements (he was refusing to retire then); about 200 former associates showed up and we had a swell series of talks and parties.

You can see the whole collection of photos here.

UPDATE: Here’s a photo of many of the people who came to Cambridge to celebrate DickFest; thanks to Jenn Thomson for providing the photo. If you’re in the field you’ll recognize some of these folks. Andrew Berry is in the front, Dick is standing against the wall in a white shirt (not a work shirt!) almost dead center, and I’m kneeling a tad lower and to the left. My friend Russ Lande is standing against the wall to the right, wearing an equid tee-shirt. If you want a key to everyone, just email me.


46 thoughts on “Lewontin lab pictures

  1. yY1973 – y1978 ! THE best years for university !
    The BEST ! y1978: I graduated from ISU’s College of Veterinary Medicine,
    two babes, too, by then birthed.

    Except, o’course, for y1966 – y1971,
    w/hirsute – Woodstock & Mr Yasgur’s dairying acres
    thrown in to one’s university summer – mix / y1969 !

    Darling pix, Dr Coyne !


  2. The black and white group photo with moose can be dated to 1980 or 1981. Jim Rendel spent a year or so at Harvard (teaching a course on canalization of phenotypic traits, his specialty, which I sat in on) after retiring from the CSIRO in 1980, and Ken Weber arrived after me, in fall 1980 or later, so this was taken in late 1980 or in 1981.

    1. Agree with the dates–I’m the woman in the photo who is, indeed, named “Donna” and was in Dick’s lab from 1980 to ’84. The woman in that photo next to Bill Marks and below Rod Norman is Frieda (from the Netherlands–can’t remember her last name)…

  3. OMG, great photos! Where are the animals? I fed Franny, the echidna, the coatimundis, some primates, and a special species of snails that ate romaine lettuce…

    1. Those animals were on the second floor, Dick’s lab was on the third floor. Mind you there was a time, during the furor of the sociobiology debates, when some students took Frannie the echidna up to the fourth floor and released her into E.O. Wilson’s domain. Wonder if Jerry knows anything about that.

  4. Damn Jerry, these are great. It’s like looking at old CSN&Y tour photos(Greg Mayer even looks strikingly like Neil Young in the 2nd photo.).

    So much hair, so much hair everywhere.

  5. Here are IDs of the people in the color group photo with moose (most or all by Andrew Berry):

    Ken Rice, Amanda Benson, ?, Brent Richter, Spencer Wells, Doreen Lewis, Adriana Briscoe, Andrew Berry, Dmitri Petrov, Peter Schweitzer, Peter Goss, Janet Collett

  6. ” I went into the Boss’s office, right by Russ’s, to get naked, knowing that Dick NEVER came in in the evenings.”

    I say nothing.

      1. No, my friend Phil Ward at Davis went on that collecting trip with me and photographed me climbing Mt.Lewontin (a big dirt mound) wearing only a hat and sneakers. That photo hangs in Lewontin’s new office next to the moose.

    1. You damn suck-up…

      It’s true though. Either a rock-star, or one of the drug-blasted roadies who did all the heavy lifting, and tended to be even hairier than the band.

    1. Sounds like DL wanted to proceed directly to the liberation of the proletariat without the tiresome “to each according to his labor” intermediary step.

  7. During the early 1980s I worked on a book with interviews with scientists for Morrow in NY. I interviewed Lewontin in Harvard in his office, which looked (if I remember correctly), a bit like a prison cell, with a window high up, out of reach. While I interviewed him, he received a call by an editor at Le Monde, who was publishing an article he wrote. I also talked to E.O. Wilson, in his office a few floors higher up, and got quite itchy because of all those ants crawling around wherever you looked.

    Unfortunately the book was never published because Morrow found it too highbrow, and the editor at another publishing house, who took over the project, died.

    1. Alexander,

      Do you still have the interviews? Who else, in addition to Lewontin and Wilson did you speak to? If there’s any way to circulate transcripts, I would be very interested to see them.

  8. As Jerry notes, Dick was “rusticated” while an undergrad at Harvard– Harvard’s term for a suspension, because you were sent out into the ‘country’, away from the college (Dick himself taught me this word). As an undergrad Dick failed organic chemistry, and I have long used this fact to argue that the standard two semester sequence of organic chemistry is irrelevant for most biologists, indeed, even for great biologists– Dick received this year the Genetics Society of America’s T.H. Morgan Medal for lifetime achievement. My department recently proposed a new major in ecology, evolution, and conservation that eliminated the organic chemistry requirement (allowing organic as an elective), but our dean, coincidentally a chemist, nixed the whole idea.

    1. Doesn’t it crucially depend on where you wind up? For example, I wouldn’t want to do physiology without some biochem, and biochem without organic (at least 1 semester) seems sort of futile.

      1. Absolutely– a biochemist needs organic chemistry. But an ecologist needs geology (which no undergraduate biology major programs require), and the interesting parts of organic chemistry (proteins, lipids, nucleic acids) are covered in a week or two at the end of the year, and often dropped due to lack of time at the end of the semester. So it seems silly to have an ecologist take two semesters of organic. The example of Dick Lewontin shows that the universe of biologists who do need organic chemistry is considerably smaller than most people think (or, at least the people putting together undergraduate curricula 😉 ).

  9. … Dick was a diehard Marxist. One day I found a tag that had fallen out of one of his work shirts; it read “Brooks Brothers Gentleman’s Work Shirt.”

    Wow, can’t get much more radical chic than that, short of attending a benefit for the Panthers at Lenny Bernstein’s pad. 🙂

    Those pics look like stills from Return of the Secaucus 7.

  10. There’s something so fun and comical about pictures from this era. They’re modern enough to almost belong in our era, and yet what’s different about them is also terribly funny. I always had the same feeling when looking at my parents’ photos, as did they. We would often just burst out laughing as we shuffled through them.

    Thanks, Jerry!

  11. My friend had Rama Singh as a professor back when she was doing her biology degree in the 90s (funny enough I was on the campus at the same time doing my Classics degree but met her when we had a horrible sweat shop editing job). She said she really liked him as a professor.

  12. I was Dick’s second Ph.D. student (Alice Kenyon was the first). That was not at Harvard, but at the University of Chicago, in the very building where Jerry has his office. He was there from 1964 to 1975. The denizens of that lab are sometimes referred to in evolutionary biology as “the Chicago mafia”. I remember Takashi Narise, Satya Prakash, George Carmody, and Ian Franklin. After me came the Charlesworths and Tsuneyuki Yamazaki. And I think Russ Lande at least started out at Chicago.

    Dick was a fun advisor, and in my case showed remarkable kindness and tolerance. He was 35 years old when I started, at age 22. During my time, but without me being involved, came the great breakthrough discovery of massive amounts of molecular variation at the population level, by electrophoretic methods. And the 1966 paper by Lewontin and Hubby discussed possible explanations of the variation, including a clear explanation of the possibility that it was due to neutral mutation. Although he did not commit himself to this explanation, this section, written by Dick two years before Kimura’s 1968 paper, marks him as a founder of the neutral theory.

          1. Many thanks. I wish there were some way I could have saved you the trouble — aside from proofreading better.

            Thanks for the Dickfest photo. There I am, fifth from the left in the back row,

  13. Pic captioned “…and me in Rasputin mode”:
    Hand Jerry a guitar and call him Garcia. Would his flies be the Grateful Dead?

  14. My lab was in awe of Marty Kreitman. We were struggling to sequence the alcohol dehydrogenase genes from several species of Hawaiian Drosophila when word came that he single-handedly had sequenced 10(?) copies of the melanogaster gene. Child’s play now, but amazing back in the ’70s.

  15. The ‘key’ to the people in the ‘Dickfest’ photo can be found online here. You can read the names, but it may be hard to make out the numbers. (BTW, I advise against googling the term ‘Dickfest photo’.)

  16. The woman named “Donna” was probably DONNA Larson Rigby, whom I hired away from the Lewontin Lab to work in my lab as a technician. I ran the Harvard Microchemistry Facility in the BioLabs (the building guarded by the 2 rhinos) during the 1980s, and she was hired in the mid-1980s.

    I am trying to send your post to her, but her last email address is defunct.

    1. Yes-I am indeed that woman named Donna, and David is correct with the details. Thanks for annotating the photos–what fun times to remember!

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