The American Naturalist has just published short “in memoriam” pieces for two Harvard professors I knew: Dick Lewontin, population geneticist, evolutionary biologist, and my Ph.D. advisor, and Ed Wilson, naturalist, ant expert, and double Pulitzer winner. I knew and liked both of them, but in the end they thoroughly disliked each other. Curiously, Ed was instrumental in bringing both Dick and me to Harvard, but after the sociobiology battles began, Ed and Dick’s friendship was replaced by animosity. But I’ve written about all this before.
The obituaries are good ones, especially that of Lewontin (it’s the best one for him that I’ve read):
Click on the screenshots to read them; access is free. I’ll give a brief excerpt from each piece.
Many academics, and perhaps scientists in particular, consider teaching a burden—a diversion from their “real” work. Lewontin loved it. Indeed, he taught more courses than required (the old-fashioned way, with blackboards, chalk, and transparencies), and after retiring he confessed to one of the authors that he regretted the decision because he so missed the experience of teaching. (At the request of a group of graduate students, he did continue to teach gratis a seminar in biostatistics.) He was proud of the many people he had mentored. Historian Michael Dietrich (2021) records how Lewontin deflected enquiries about his own career and contributions, focusing on his mentees: “When, in 1997, I asked him how I should write about his life, he pulled out of his desk a list of every graduate student, postdoc and visitor at his laboratory—more than 100 people—and said I should write about all of them.” Lewontin’s commitment to teaching extended beyond traditional academia; he wrote frequently (and wittily) for magazines of general intellectual interest, such as the New York Review of Books, and he published a number of popular science books (e.g., Lewontin 1982, 1991b, 2000; Rose et al. 1984).
That’s absolutely true. Lewontin was the least self-aggrandizing scientist of high reputation that I ever knew. I wrote my own “in memoriam” piece on this website.
Here’s a photo (taken by Andrew Berry) of Lewontin receiving homage from moi. Cambridge, MA, 2017
Many scientists have marveled that a single person could have managed to find the time to write at least 30 books on such a diversity of subjects in addition to hundreds of research articles, even aside from his other activities. The feat becomes more astounding when one realizes that Wilson never used a word processor; he did all his writing in longhand. The accomplishment remains astounding, but a good part of the explanation is that, beginning in 1965, he had a research assistant, Kathleen Horton, who worked with him until his death and promptly typed all of his writings. She quickly assumed much responsibility for his various projects, including handling virtually all of his correspondence, scheduling, and many of the chores associated with his research activities. Several remembrances noted her importance in Wilson’s work, and Rhodes (2021) provides some details of her life and contributions. Wilson was very aware and appreciative of her lifetime of support, and this account of his scientific contributions would be incomplete without recognizing her.
Indeed, it was Kathy who, guarding Ed’s office, got me in to see him when I showed up at Harvard with my dossier, begging to be admitted. (I was supposed to go to grad school at the University of Chicago, but found out when I returned from my Wanderjahr that Lewontin, formerly at Chicago, was moving to Harvard, and didn’t remember to ask for me to be admitted as his prospective student.) I thus had to get into Harvard on my own, and Ed was instrumental in setting up appointments for me with various faculty, who then voted to admit me after I filled out an application. I could never dislike Ed after that, plus he was always very gracious to me. (I was a t.a. for him twice in Introductory Biology.)
Here’s a photo I took of Ed in 2007 at a lunch during a symposium at Harvard: