Memoriam for Francisco Ayala by John Avise

March 6, 2023 • 8:15 am

Evolutionary geneticist Francisco José Ayala died yesterday, and although obituaries are beginning to appear, they’re all in Spanish (e.g., here and here). I expect the American press will catch up shortly. In the meantime, I asked his student and colleague John Avise (who posts bird photos here each Sunday) to write a personal account of his memories of Ayala. Here’s what John sent, posted with permission:

I was deeply saddened to learn of the recent passing of Francisco J. Ayala, a gentleman scientist with very European tastes and manners.

I knew Francisco for nearly five decades, first as his PhD student at University of California at Davis in the early 1970’s and much later as his friend and colleague at U.C. Irvine beginning in 2005.  Francisco’s early training as a Dominican priest in his native home of Spain, and soon thereafter as an evolutionary geneticist advised by Theodosius Dobzhansky at Columbia University in New York, combined to give Francisco a uniquely international and interdisciplinary perspective on life that led to his reputation as a brilliant intellectual, a true Renaissance Man.  His oversized impacts on the field of evolutionary genetics and the intersection of science and religion are well documented, so here I will limit my comments to a few more personal experiences.

I will most remember Francisco as a generous, honest, honorable, and openly warm-hearted mentor who loved people and genuinely cared about the wellbeing of his students and colleagues.  Francisco slept little and wrote extensively, always in longhand.  He traveled and lectured widely, especially in Europe where he is perhaps even better known than in the U.S.  During his long career, Francisco received an extraordinary number of honors and accolades, for which he always expressed surprise and great gratitude.  In what became almost a ritual between us, each year I would beg him to write his autobiography, to which he would jokingly reply that he didn’t want to subject himself to that much introspection.

He took special pleasure in his ‘hobby’, owning and operating a vineyard from which emerged delicious wines that= he frequently shared with his friends, keeping us well supplied.  Although our scientific foci differed considerably, in many respects I personally regarded Francisco almost as a second father figure.  Indeed, to a considerable degree, his overarching concern with human affairs inspired me to write two of my own books on human genetics.  I will miss Francisco sorely, as will the fields of biology and philosophy writ large.

A photo of Ayala from the NYT:

Photo: Chas Metivier

9 thoughts on “Memoriam for Francisco Ayala by John Avise

    1. Thank you, John, for sharing your memories, and thank you, Jerry, for hosting John’s writing at your website.

  1. A book that I devoured was one that he co-authored: Dobzhansky, Th., Ayala, F. J., Stebbins, G. Ledyard & Valentine, J. W., Evolution. 572 pp. with 18 photos, 123 drawings. W. H. Freeman and Company, San Francisco 1977.

    Really good book! I no longer have it in my personal library, unfortunately. (No, I didn’t literally “devour” it.)

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