MBL, Woods Hole, and Me

John S. Willis

By John S. Willis, Professor Emeritus, University of Georgia

Growing up in California, I never heard of the Cape Cod village with the funny name, let alone the MBL, until my junior year at UC Berkeley. While working in the laboratory of Daniel Mazia, I began to learn about this special place called Woods Hole. I particularly recall one evening sitting at a bar with two of Mazia’s students, John Roslansky and Frank Child. In response to my puzzled query about this place to which they kept referring, Frank unfolded a napkin and the two began to sketch the layout of Woods Hole. They imbued me with its lore—a place where eminent scholars and worthy students could mingle in an informal setting, and the latter could pursue many activities, some of them even reputable.

My first visit to Woods Hole was in 1956 after my graduation from Berkeley. I was working as a summer assistant to Donald Griffin of bat echolocation fame at Harvard, where I would enter graduate school in the autumn. Griffin sent his team down to the Cape to trap bats, and arranged for us to stay with biologist Sally Gibbs, who then was teaching in the Science School and being a wife and mother. I used the opportunity to attend an MBL ecology course lecture given by one of my then heroes, Eugene Odum.

I spent the entire next summer and then some in Woods Hole, taking first the MBL Physiology course, then the Invert Course, and then using the MBL library to study for my Harvard prelims. It was a privilege for one so untested to take the Physiology course, as it was populated mainly by senior graduate students, postdocs and beyond. We rotated through four sections; mine were those of “Spike” Carlson on nerve conduction, highlighted by a visit from Keffer Hartline; Howard Shachman on analytical ultracentrifugation; Bernie Davis on use of bacteria in membrane transport (a winner in part because we could spend some of the long incubation periods as breaks at Stony Beach); and Andrew Szent-Gyorgi on actomyosin.

The Invert course was a bit of a disappointment for two reasons. First, I had difficulty viewing specimens under a dissecting scope because, at the time, MBL didn’t supply optical apparatus and we had to bring our own. All that Harvard had to offer were decrepit instruments from the early 20th century. So, I was reduced to begging looks through the far finer instruments brought by students from large state universities. The other problem was that, compared to the rich fauna I had seen in Pacific coast tide pools, the offerings around the Cape in terms of sea urchins, anemones, crabs, octopus, etc. were pathetic.

But there were plenty of worms! At the end of the Annelid unit the instructor in charge, John Buck, told us to choose a project. He suggested constructing a key to the Annelids. So, four of us, Jack Kaufman, Tom Poulson, Judy Horwitz, and I, started writing a rhyming key to the Annelids of Cape Cod. We spent hours at this and produced a reasonable product cleverly illustrated by Jack with marginal worm sketches. Phrases from that work have echoed through our brains for the rest of our lives, like “Omnes Chaetopterus in tres partes divisa est.” and “The only worm too firm to squirm is Aphrodite in her spikey nightie.”  Dr. Buck was not amused, nor impressed. He was in favor of flunking us for the Annelid unit, but other faculty, notably Cadet Hand and Ted Bullock, took a more generous view and prevailed. Bullock tried the key himself and said it worked for all but one or two West Coast Annelids. So we were allowed to pass (though I’m not sure that anyone after me was ever allowed to take two MBL courses in a summer again!).

The ensuing year brought my Invert course classmate, Judy Horwitz, and me closer, and we were engaged in late summer of 1958.  After a couple of years as post docs at Oxford—she in Zoology and I in Biochemistry—we both ended up with positions at the University of Illinois in Urbana, I worked in the Physiology Department, headed by Ladd Prosser, a long-time summer denizen of Woods Hole and MBL.

My own continued connection to the MBL was through occasional attendance at The Society of General Physiologists symposia.  My last visit to the MBL was in 2005 for the World Na-K ATPase symposium. It was memorable for me in part because it was probably the last time Dan Tosteson, Joe Hoffman and Robin Post, who had been among the founders of this long-running series, would all be in attendance together. It was also the last time that my name appeared as author of a scientific publication.

So, one way or another, my association with MBL and Woods Hole has persisted throughout my adult life. There have been many changes: the old frame house that was my dorm has gone, as has Old Main, and the Mess Hall, replaced by Swope and newer, better labs. The Captain Kidd is still there—with better food—but also more competition. The bluff across the road from Nobska Lighthouse is no longer a sharp cliff, but now a rounded descent to the sea.

Many things remain but with improvements: the library, now with computers and copy rooms, and the main lecture hall, now with names on the seats in memoriam. But the essence of the place first described to me 58 years ago persists. The image that I have that encapsulates that essence is George Wald and Bernie Davis in swimming trunks, standing calf-deep in water at Stony Beach discussing erudite science while families of scientists cavort on the beach and students loaf or—as we now say—hang out in the sand.

In 2012, Dr. Willis established a Charitable Gift Annuity, a life income gift that will provide a fixed income for the rest of his life.



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