David B. Wake (1936-2021)

May 8, 2021 • 10:45 am

by Greg Mayer

David B. Wake, emeritus Professor of Integrative Biology, Curator, and Director of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at the University of California, Berkeley, died on April 29, 2021. Dave was a herpetologist and evolutionary morphologist who not only exerted great influence in his core disciplines, but also made notable contributions to conservation, systematics, evolutionary genetics, and paleontology. In conservation, his contributions were not just in conservation biology as an academic pursuit, but in actually conserving the world’s biodiversity, especially amphibians.

Dave Wake in his MVZ office (from his lab website).

Dave was born and grew up in South Dakota. He went to Pacific Lutheran College, and then down the coast to the University of Southern California for his Ph.D. with Jay Savage (another notable herpetologist), which was on the comparative osteology and evolution of salamanders of the family Plethodontidae. This species-rich family of lungless and mostly American salamanders remained the central, though not exclusive, object of his research over the whole of his long and very productive career. It was at USC that he met Marvalee, who became his wife, and who is a formidable herpetologist and morphologist (specializing in caecilians) in her own right.

After finishing his degree, Dave spent 5 years as a professor at the University of Chicago, but in 1969 he was lured back to California to Berkeley and the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, and he stayed there the rest of his career. He was the Director of the Museum from 1971 to 1998; he retired in 2003, but continued a rich research output: over 400 publications are listed on Dave’s website. Dave’s legacy is reflected not just in the enormous outpouring of his own work, but in the stunning roster of the undergraduates, graduate students, postdocs, and collaborators who have flourished under his influence. The “People” page on his lab website reads like a who’s who of herpetologically-oriented evolutionary biology. (And there are many others not listed, such as “grandstudents”, who fell within at least the edges of Dave’s penumbra.)

Berkeley has put out a fine notice, and we are fortunate that Dave himself contributed to a biographical paper published in Copeia in 2017, and a transcript of an interview he did with his longtime MVZ colleague, mammalogist Jim Patton, is available; I have drawn from these sources for some of the above account.

When I was applying to graduate schools in 1978, I applied to Berkeley, and went out to visit in the winter of 1979, where I was graciously and generously received into the home of Dave and Marvalee (and their son Tom– now a zooarcheologist at UCLA). I was enormously impressed by his overview monograph on tropical American salamanders, published a few years earlier with James Lynch, and by the MVZ and the group of students and faculty there.

I had also applied to Chicago and Harvard, and I soon realized that there were close connections among the herpetologists at all three places. I wound up going to Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology to work with Ernest Williams, but one of Dave’s graduate students Pere Alberch, whom I had met on my visit to the MVZ, the next year came to the MCZ to be the curator of the herpetology department. (Pere, who died tragically young, was later Director of the National Museum of Natural Sciences in Madrid, and one of the founders of the modern sub-discipline of evolutionary developmental biology, or “evo-devo”; Dave wrote his obituary for Nature.) There was an “MCZ-MVZ axis”, which passed through Chicago (including the Field Museum in Chicago). The strength of that connection was driven home by Dave himself many years later, when in 2017, he remarked that, in devoting himself to the study of plethodontid salamanders,  he had “consciously modeled his approach on Williams'” work on anoles. It is fitting that he and Marvalee both spent their last sabbatical year in 2002 at the MCZ, the long-serving director of which is Jim Hanken, yet another of Dave’s students.

Although I did not wind up in Berkeley or working with Dave, I would see him at meetings and on visits to California, and want to extend my deep condolences to Marvalee, Tom, and all their family and friends.


Dave’s major works are too numerous to mention, so I include here only the 1976 monograph that so impressed me as an undergraduate; a University of California publication on the history of the MVZ; and his obituary of Pere Alberch. I’ve also included the biography in Copeia mentioned above, and two articles analyzing Dave’s research program by James Griesemer, a philosopher of science who had been an undergraduate in Dave’s lab.

Griesemer, J. 2013. Integration of approaches in David Wake’s model-taxon research platform for evolutionary morphology. Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 44:525-536.

Griesemer, J. 2015. What salamander biologists have taught us about evo-devo. pp. 271-301 in A.C. Love, ed. Conceptual Change in Biology: Scientific and Philosophical Perspectives on Evolution and Development. Springer Verlag, Dordrecht.

Rodriguez-Robles, J.A., D.A. Good, & D.B. Wake. 2003. Brief history of herpetology in the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, University of California, Berkeley, with a list of type specimens of recent amphibians and reptiles. Univ. Calif. Pub. Zool. 131: xvi+119. pdf

Staub, N. and R.L. Mueller. 2017. David Burton Wake. Copeia 105(2):415-426. pdf

Wake, D.B. 1998. Pere Alberch (1954-1998): Synthesizer of evolution and development. Nature 393:632. pdf

Wake, D. B., and J. F. Lynch. 1976. The distribution, ecology, and evolutionary history of plethodontid salamanders in tropical America. Sci. Bull. Nat. Hist. Mus. Los Angeles Co. 25:1-65.

I am grateful to Jonathan Losos for reading a draft of this, and providing suggestions.

10 thoughts on “David B. Wake (1936-2021)

  1. Thanks for posting this. I’m sad to hear Dave Wake is dead.

    Pere Alberch’s papers with Emily Gale in the 1980s on colchicine and digit reduction in limb development blew my mind. It was brilliant work.

  2. Thanks for posting this, Greg. Very sad news. I only met David a couple of times but found him to be likeable and very knowledgeable.

  3. Thank you. This allows me to appreciate David’s extraordinary contribution to evolutionary biology. I remain in your and David’s debt.

  4. I am not a herpetologist or a scientist of any kind, though I wish I was. I can easily imagine enjoying the company of someone such as David and I can only begin to imagine the personal and professional loss incurred by his death. Thank you for bringing him to our attention.

  5. I think the red kanji character framed on his wall is an older version of the word “snake”.
    D.A.
    NYC

  6. Thanks for this great tribute, with all the links.

    Dave arrived as a junior faculty member at the University of Chicago in 1964. I arrived there as an undergraduate the following year. In my first year, and possibly the first quarter of that first year, I took an introductory biology course (I think was Bio 150), and who should be the teacher? Dave.

    Many years later I reminded him of that course, and he remembered the challenge of being forced to teach about William Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of the blood. I was a bio major in college, but in grad school did the history of biology. So there, in my first college bio class, I was exposed to both bio and history of bio by Dave Wake.

    I see that in 1967 Dave won a Quantrell undergraduate teaching award at the University of Chicago.

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