How I was caught naked in Dick Lewontin’s office

May 9, 2020 • 10:30 am

Over the years, two slightly salacious stories have circulated about me among evolutionists, and over time they’ve been combined into one story that was sometimes used to introduce me when I gave scientific seminars. Many of my pals don’t mind embarrassing me this way, and I reciprocate. It’s all in good fun.

But I want to set the record straight by recounting both stories separately, and tell you how they’ve been merged into one fallacious story.

Story 1.  Many of Dick Lewontin‘s grad students worked late in the evening. We’d all go out for the 99 cent student dinner special at Charlie’s Beef and Beer on Massachusetts Ave (the restaurant is no longer there), and then return to the lab for a few hours. One night there was just two of us working late: Russ Lande (now a famous evolutionary biologist) and I.

Lewontin designed his lab on communal (if not Communist) principles. There was a huge central room with a long map table that Dick had gotten from the remains of the defunct geography department, surrounded by a circle of offices, each containing two people. The idea, which was a good one and worked well, was that to get to your office you’d have to walk past the big table, where people might be having coffee, eating lunch, or just chewing the fat. Dick’s office was next to his secretary’s office (his was bigger because some animals were more equal than others) and to Russ’s.

Two more points: Dick always left his office door open, even when he left for the evening. Part of this was simply so we could walk in and talk to him during the day if he wasn’t too busy.  Also, Dick almost never came in in the evening. A devoted family man, he went home to his wife Mary Jane about 5 p.m. and didn’t return (he also had four sons, but they were in college or grown). I remember him telling us once “I have to leave: Mary Jane has a duck in the oven.”

So, one night at about 8 or 9 pm, Russ was working in his office and I in mine. All the offices had glass doors so you could see in. I decided to play a prank on Russ: I would strip to the buff and then run at his closed door, flattening myself against it and screaming like a banshee. I was hoping to scare the daylights out of him. I decided to go into Lewontin’s office right next to Russ’s, remove my clothes, and then streak out and flatten myself against the outside of his door.

I went into Dick’s office, turned the lights off, and removed my clothes.

When I was standing there stark naked, ready for The Big Streak, suddenly the light switch was flipped on.  Dick was there! It was one of those very rare nights that he came in, almost certainly to retrieve something.

Imagine the situation: The Boss (Dick’s nickname) was standing there, and I was naked in his office. There are few interpretations that one could make that aren’t unsavory, if not perverted! At least I was alone, but one could still construe some sort of bizarre intent on my part.

But I quickly explained to Dick what I intended to do, and, Ceiling Cat bless him, he understood. He left, and I don’t remember whether I ever pulled that prank on Russ.

Story 2. This actually preceded story 1, but has become conflated with it.  As I explained yesterday, the MCZ labs, where Dick designed his lab, was new, and they were building his space on the third floor while we occupied cramped spaces on the first floor (later to be occupied by the ichthyologist Karel Liem and now George Lauder). But we got to go up and look at the third-floor space under construction and choose our future offices. I picked mine out, and, at the time, had a new girlfriend.

As is the wont of young randy males, I decided that I would “christen” my future office by spending the night there with my new inamorata. We got a pair of sleeping bags, did the christening, and then fell asleep—soundly and for the rest of the night.  In fact, we were woken up the next morning by the construction crew building the lab, who found a pair of humans largely divested of clothing. I didn’t know this, but the workers reported it to their boss, a man named Charlie Atlas (I am not making this up).  Atlas had a talk with Lewontin, who then called me into his office for a paternal “chat.”

Dick is pretty laissez-faire about such things, and he told me this, “Jerry, if you want to blow in someone’s ear at Harvard, be my guest. Just don’t do it in the lab.” And that was the end of that.

Well, not completely, because Story 1 and Story 2 became conflated into the false story which I’ll call Story1/Story 2. I’ve been introduced with that conflated story more than once.  It goes like this: “Jerry was caught by his boss Dick in flagrante delicto on top of Dick’s desk.”

Now THAT is a salacious story, but it’s false.  And don’t you believe otherwise, though I think I’m past the days when these stories would be used to introduce me before a talk.

Here’s a photo when Dick was doing field work with some colleagues in Death Valley, work that I took up and continued for several years as a postdoc: Left to right: Theodosius Dobzhansky (taken to observe the site), Steve Bryant (kneeling), Dick Lewontin, Steve Jones (looking fierce with a moustach) and Tim Prout, my postdoc advisor.

Russ Lande:

In the fly kitchen where media was made. Kneeling left to right: Don Wallace and I. Standing left to right: Russ Lande, Harold “Swamp” Lee, and Alex Felton.

At the big center table with Lewontin’s writing on the blackboard. Left to right: Rama Singh, Ann Litke, Donal Hickey, and me. Ann is holidng up vials of flies, and there’s a tray of them in front of me.

You can see more photos from my time in the Lewontin lab here.

I also have a story about how I climbed Mount Lewontin (a hill in Death Valley) without clothes (we didn’t need oxygen, so to make a first ascent without something, it had to be clothes and not oxygen).

65 thoughts on “How I was caught naked in Dick Lewontin’s office

  1. I don’t believe much of this really happened. Of course I was NOT there, but in my life I have had many dreams that are so real that in memory … they really happened. This is just what humans do. Our brains also make up all sorts of visions, voices and smells that after a few years, sometimes it is hard to determine reality from made up. Ask any religious or philosopher person!

      1. Very few humans have total recall. Modern neuroscience says that our memory is constantly adjusted … and complicated by dreams … so my comment is serious, not tongue in cheek. Check out anything that humans really believe. It is all adjusted, and embellished over time, often becoming interesting stories. But usually that doesn’t matter much until some groups resort to violence in the name of true belief. Consider any religion.

        1. You said, “I don’t believe much of this happened’. Operative word is “much”. I think you’re off base here, even if we don’t remember every single detail.

    1. Eh, just because your life wasn’t this exciting, don’t imagine that the lives of others were not.

    2. I assume, vicsteblin, that because human memory is fallible you don’t believe anything humans report about the past unless you were there. And, of course, since you are human as well, you can’t believe that either. Leaving you where, exactly? Maybe the past never was! Maybe we’re all just part of a simulation being created as it goes!

      Pass me another joint.

    3. I remember this very clearly, and I indicated the parts I didn’t remember well. Mr. Steblin, you are a jerk of the first water. I have several people who can vouch for both of these stories.

      I’m sorry, but you don’t deserve to comment on this site any longer.

      1. Damn right, Professor. There are some moments in ones life that are very strongly imprinted in the memory, and Christine Janis’s comment also is right on, I think.

        Story 1 is laugh out loud funny at the light switch being flipped on. Thanks for lifting my spirits by that.

        1. And I bet Prof. Lewontin wishes he could but can never unsee what he saw that night.

          Some of my own escapades are burnt into my memory. Wish I could shake some of them but can’t.

  2. Simpler times. But both excellent stories. Here’s to hoping the world will return to a state where such shenanigans are possible again.

    1. It’s just occurred to me that my smartarse remark might only work in British English – oops!

  3. Dang, Story 2 reminds me of Nurse Ratched catching Billy Bibbit and McMurphy’s hooker friend in flagrante in the mental ward on the morning after McMurphy was supposed to have made his escape — but with a much less deleterious outcome.

    1. You tellin’ me you never “christened” a place, buddy — a car, a boat, a girlfriend’s new apartment, anything? I had a girlfriend owned a vintage clothing store on Miami Beach. We “christened” that joint the day it opened and every time she had it remodeled.

      Sanctified ground, is the way I looked at it.

  4. Attitudes toward nudity were much more laid-back in the 70’s. “Streaking”, for instance, was more often greeted with laughter or indifference than uptight indignation—at least it was so in Madison. My parents set condign example for my young sisters and I when they reacted with mere bemusement to the care-free jog of a streaker through our bowling-alley. I suppose it was muck-racking right-wingers who were giving you grief.

    1. naked-fest? Yes, but only for students of the Ecdysozoa! [FFs are fun, but you should see the slow-motion molt of the tardigrade.]

  5. Regarding the design of the lab at the MCZ, Dick generously invited those of us at Chicago for our input on its layout. Furthermore, he always made sure that any visiting luminaries joined us at that conference table, so everyone could participate in the discussions. This was at a time at Harvard when other grad students had to make appointments just to see their advisors.

  6. I have a much less racy grad school story. My project required me to bring Petri plates (with spread bacterial viable counts) every hour or two into a 37º constant temperature room. The room generally contained a giant shaking carboy filled with a culture of bioluminscent bacteria, the object of research by the world-famous chairman of our Biochemistry department. The aerated carboy was beautiful, emitting an eerie, greenish-blue light. Whenever I entered the 37º degree room with my plates, I liked to turn off the glowing carboy’s shaker and watch what happened. As the aeration decreased, the glow faded. Under this condition, the aldehyde substrate of the bioluminescence reaction builds up, so that when the shaker is turned on again, that reaction is particularly strong, and there is a brilliant flash of greenish blue light. I always turned the shaker back on when I left the room, so as to return things to normal and to go out, so to speak, with a flash .

    Years later, a friend told me that the Chairman’s lab discovered some remarkable feature or other of their luminescent bacteria while I was in grad school—but they were mystified by the fact that they could never repeat it after I left. I hope he was just pulling my leg.

  7. What’s interesting, Jerry, is your comments about Dick being such a devoted family man. As somebody who was in the MCZ at exactly the same time (albeit on the second floor rather than the third), many of my memories are of all the affairs going on between faculty and whomever they could get their hands on.

    (Writers such as Malcolm Bradbury [e.g., The History Man] and David Lodge (e.g. Changing Places) covered well about the nature of academia in the 1970s, times quite unbelievable to anybody under 50 today.

    1. Sounds like the makings of a fine bit of cinema. We’ll have to wait for the pandemic to subside before the actors can get their hands on each other.

      1. Lots of stories from those times, but who really cares. Just a bunch of us old geezers (as we are now).

        1. “Changing Places” and its sequel “Small World” are surely the best academia novels since Mary McCarthy invented the genre. In one of them, I don’t remember which, there is a priceless episode about computerized “Discourse Analysis” (which was briefly a big thing at Birmingham, where Lodge taught). A working-class novelist is shown the computer analysis of his word choice–I think it finds “grey” and “greasy” as his favorite words—after which he develops an irreversible case of writer’s block.

        2. But, OK, a real funny story. A set of words that I don’t think have ever been said before or since. I was in the habit of kidnapping my experimental animals and bringing them home, to a shared house with a housemate who was in to experimental drugs (well, many of us were back then, different times in all sorts of ways).


          Housemate: Christine, your hyrax just ate a thousand bucks worth of cocaine.

          Me: Well, you shouldn’t have left it out on the dining room table, now, should you?

          (Hyrax was OK, but a bit subdued for a few days.)

    2. Dick and Mary Jane were high school sweethearts and I think married when he was at Harvard as an undergrad. (He flunked out, by the way, but then was let back in after a year working in the garment industry.)

      I know a lot of academic roués, but Dick was absolutely devoted to Mary Jane. Once I met him by accident at the Harvard Square Cinema with my girlfriend, and he told us that he was going to sit in the balcony with Mary Jane because they liked to do that and hold hands.

      And for their entire adult lives they read literature to each other aloud at bedtime (I remember him telling us about Ulysses).

  8. Wonderful! I do hope these stories are going to end up in their due place in a published scientific and personal memoir.

  9. I’ve got a story similar to your first, from when I clerked for a federal judge after law school. In those days, I was always the first one to arrive in chambers, since I’d drop my young son off at a nearby preschool where the kids had to be there by 8:00 am, while everyone else in chambers would straggle in closer to the official 9:00 am court opening time.

    One fine summer morning I arrived at the courthouse (which was in an old post-office building with a balky, decrepit air-conditioning unit) only to find that the AC was on the fritz again. When I walked by the magnetometers at Checkpoint Charlie in the lobby, the US Marshals told me they had contacted the judges to let them know not to come in until the AC was fixed.

    I walked up the three flights of stairs to chambers and called my fellow law clerk to let him know I’d meet him over at the county law library later that morning (which was our work routine when the AC went out). While I was on the phone with him, the judge’s courtroom deputy called in and I let her know about the AC. She said she and the judge’s secretary, who routinely drove to work together, would wait for word before coming to the courthouse.

    The temperature in chambers must’ve been 110 degrees Fahrenheit, easy. By the time I got off the phone, I was schvitzing up a storm, so I decided to open the window in my office in the hopes of catching a breeze. It wouldn’t budge. I tried and tried, but it was practically welded shut with several layers of a tar-like substance that had been sprayed there to keep pigeons from roosting on the window sill. But now it was a battle of wills between me and the window, so I got a chair to stand on and got my back and legs into the action.

    I finally pried the goddamn thing open, but by then I was soaked through with sweat, to the point where by socks squished when I walked. I went to the judge’s robing room, grabbed a handful of wire hangers, and hung my suit, my shirt, everything but my skivvies in the open window to dry (since I knew no one else would be coming to chambers that morning).

    While I was waiting for the clothes to dry, I picked up some files I’d been working on the day before and drafted a couple memos to the judge. When I was done, I clipped the memos to the files and took them into the judge’s office, to put them on the long table next to his desk, where we’d line up files needing the judge’s attention.

    I was standing there at the table, arranging the files in order of priority, when I heard the key hit the door behind me and knew, instantly, I’d have myself some ‘splainin’ to do. In walked the judge’s secretary (a southern gentlewoman of a certain age, a proper lady of impeccable manners who used to pronounce my first name with two syllables, “Kay-yen”). For some reason, she’d decided to drive herself to work that morning and hadn’t gotten word about the malfunctioning AC.

    “Kay-yen,” she screamed. “My Lord! What on earth … ?!” I grabbed a couple files and tried to cover myself as best I could, front and back (the closest the two meanings of “briefs” has ever come, I suppose) and shuffled backward toward my office, blushing and bowing and apologizing the whole way.

    By the next day, the story was all over the courthouse, replete with exaggerations both as to the extent of my dishabille and as to just what it was I was doing in the judge’s office when his secretary walked in on me. I got teased about it mercilessly nearly every day for the rest of my clerkship.

    The incident happened going on four decades ago now. The judges who were on the bench at the time have all shuffled off this mortal coil or taken senior status. The law clerks I worked with are scattered to the four corners of the contiguous 48, wrapping up their own legal careers. The clerk’s office personnel has turned over a good two or three times.

    But those rumors still seem to be circulating around the courthouse. The last time I was in town to try a case there, I stopped by the clerk’s office to file a document. Some young fella who works there, probably wasn’t even born when the incident occurred, followed me out into the hallway to ask me, “Is it true, what they say?”

      1. I thought about taking them off and hanging ’em in the window, too, since they were soaked. But I wasn’t comfortable parading around chambers in the all-together for some reason. It would’ve seemed somehow sacrilegious.

        Still, it’s naked as a jaybird that I tend to make my appearance in other people’s retelling. 🙂

          1. The judge’s poor secretary! I sure hope she found some way to unremember that godawful image.

            1. It’s why British lawyers wear those crazy horsehair wigs – you never know when they might come in handy to preserve your modesty.

    1. What a wonderful story!

      I never had such experiences as a college student since I went to a religious school where the freshman girls were required to live in a dormitory with a house mother who locked us all in at 9PM.

      Best I can do is that my husband, kids and I used to camp almost every weekend from early spring to late fall along Cherry Creek
      (near Cherry Lake, part of three lakes comprising San Francisco’s water system, outside the primitive area of Yosemite). Down at the creek, there was a wonderful flat rock by a deep part of the creek where I enjoyed going to bathe in peace after breakfast was over, lunches were made, and everyone but me went off fishing. One day, I was stripped to the waist, washing, when my son comes dashing over the hill to warn me that some fishermen were coming…and, they were right behind him. I just barely had time to grab a towel to cover up.

    2. Well, it makes for a good story to tell your kids or grand kids, doesn’t it. 😎
      Well told.

  10. The composite story was indeed part of MCZ lore. I heard a version of the composite story when I was a grad student (a few years after Jerry finished). In the version I was told, Jerry and his girlfriend were found in flagrante delicto on Lewontin’s desk by an MCZ night watchman. (Back then, the MCZ had its own security guards.) I don’t know if the story is still handed down.

  11. Something about the photos put me in mind of The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers for some inexplicable reason. Their creator, Gilbert Shelton wisely wrote, “Books will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no books”.

    1. I remember that quote, but he wasn’t talking about ‘books’ – it was a word that begins with ‘d’ and ends with ‘ope’. I always identified with Freewheelin’ Franklin (one of the FFFB). Back in the day, I was quite the Hairy Hippie (and beginning to look that way again), but not quite up to Jerry’s standards.

  12. I do belatedly recall that a friend of mine from grad school who would be forever telling a similar story. His advisor came in the lab one night and interrupted him mid-bonk with another grad student on the lab bench.
    Hey, it happens.

  13. Love the stories, Jerry. And thank you for the picture of Tim Prout. Such a wonderful man!

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