Dick Lewontin, 1929-2021

Although Richard Lewontin, my Ph.D. advisor and known to all as Dick and his students as The Bosshadnt, wasn't feeling well recently and was not receiving visitors, his news of his passing at 92 was still shocking. He was undoubtedly the most important person in my career as an evolutionary genealogist. He helped me to develop both academically and behaviorally. I couldn't have asked for a better mentor, and I loved him. I have only a few words to remember, so please forgive me if I am the only one posting today. Three days after the death of Dick in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Mary Jane (below left), Dick's death in Cambridge, Massachusetts, occurred. They were my closest friends. They were high school sweethearts, and they got married around age 20. They were together until their deaths. Dick returned home every day to have lunch with her, and they shared books in bed every night. They called each other Mr. After Joyce's characters, their pet names for each other were Mr. and Mrs. Bloom. It was impossible to imagine that one could live with the other, according to those who knew them both. It was a blessing that neither of them had to live without the other for more than a few weeks. When I was a graduate student, Dick and Mary Jane were with me at the Harvard Square Theater. After a brief conversation, Dick told me, "Excuse us if you don't sit with us, Mary Jane and I prefer to sit on the balcony and hold hands." It's amazing to think that Dick was only 42 when I met him at the University of Chicago in 1971. I was then accepted as his student. After being conscientious objector I was drafted and took a Wanderhalbjahr. Then, after a short detour as a potential student of Dicks advisor, Theodosius Dzhansky, Dick called me to tell him I was available to join his lab. He had taken up a position at Harvards Museum of Comparative Zoology and forgot about me while negotiating for the transfer of his five Chicago students. I was then stuck. E. O. Wilson helped me get into Harvard. After five years in Dicks lab as a graduate student, I was unable to find work so I continued on as a postdoc for one more year. Here's how Dick looked around the time I entered his laboratory: His lab was an egalitarian commune. His office was not as fancy as ours. All the offices were located around a large, ten-foot map table that Harvard geographers had provided. To facilitate interaction, you couldn't go to your office without crossing that table. There was a lot of science that was created and vetted at this table. He was such an excellent advisor. His lab was full of intelligent people you could learn from. Not just other students but also a steady stream of visiting scholars and luminaries who came through for a few weeks or longer. This allowed you to meet virtually everyone involved in evolutionary genetics. The breadth of Dick's academic lineage can be seen here (note that it runs for several pages). Dick was a fiercely intelligent, brilliant writer and ferociously articulate. This made him a role model for many of us, but also discouraged us from realizing that we would never be able to achieve his level of intelligence and achievement. After two years of thinking about quitting Harvard, I realized that Dick was not typical for people in this field and that hard work could make a difference. Dick, as an advisor, insisted that you create your Ph.D. thesis. He told me that he was searching for a problem in research when he arrived at Theodosius Dobzhansky's lab. Dobzhansky said to him in his nasal Russian voice: "I have my research problem." We had to create our own. Dick, unlike many advisors (whose percentage is increasing over the years), did not tell us to do research that was somehow incorporated into his NIH grant. He funded your project after you had already created it. The end result was that each student worked on a different problem. However, the overarching theme of the lab and Dicks later work was to measure the genetic variation in natural populations. Jack Hubby and Dick had pioneered gel electrophoresis in Chicago, a method that allows you to see variants of enzymes caused by mutation. His 1974 book, The Genetic Basis of Evolutionary Change (his goal) was to determine the genetic variation at various loci within the genome and to then understand why. Dobzhansky, his advisor, also had this goal. My contribution was to increase electrophoresis through changing biochemical conditions for running gels. This led to a dramatic increase in variation at many loci. This only made the puzzle more complicated. Dick's 1974 book solution was not satisfactory. We still don't understand why there is so much variation. However, the variants could be selectively identical (neutral). Dick provided us with the freedom and support we needed, as well as being available to provide financial or moral advice. Dick was always available to answer questions and help with equipment purchases. The lab was also supplied with strong coffee from the departmental stockroom, which was easily purchased using grant funds. I recall that the NIH audited the lab's finances once. The auditor saw the large budget for canned coffee and asked Dick what it was for. Dick replied, "For drinking." Below: Lewontin at his office door, labeled Dr. O. Sophila. This post contains a lot more photos taken while I was in the laboratory. Dick wore the same outfit: a work shirt and khaki pants with work boots. In winter, Dick wore a green sweater over his work shirt. Brooks Brothers Gentlemans Work Shirt was a label that fell out of Dicks shirt. He was a snob! He was a Marxist! Most importantly, Dick was a strong believer in ethics that he tried to instill in us all. He would never accept data from scientists he felt were selling too much. (I won't identify names.) He wouldn't allow his name to be on papers that were not his. When I was writing my first paper on gel electrophoresis I had a draft of it and I copied it to Jerry A. Coyne (author) and Richard C. Lewontin (author). I then put it on his desk for review. I received the paper back the next day with his name and signature as the author. I was told by him that he would never do it again. Dick did not consider providing research advice or helping to rewrite papers as a contribution. 150 of his former colleagues attended DickFest when we held a celebration to honor him since he didn't seem to be retiring in 1998. Here's the group; some of the scientists you might recognize are here. Andrew Berry and me organized it. Andrew was the one who informed me of Dick's death yesterday. (Andrew is at the top of the photo. DickFest concluded with a celebratory dinner in the corridors of Harvards Museum of Comparative Zoology. We asked Dick to speak briefly at the end. He stood in front of a tank with a preserved coelacanth in formalin. He noted the irony in that. His brief talk was short and focused on one thing: DON'T USE YOUR NAME ON STUDENTS PAPERS. This was his message, one that he also got from Dobzhansky who was a follower of this practice. Dobzhansky also got it from Thomas Hunt Morgan the Nobel Laureate, who was generous with credit. Five years ago, it was my turn to speak at CoyneFest. I did the exact same thing. Unfortunately, professors are constantly in a race for fame and especially jobs. Few professors have the financial means to remove their names from student papers. They are often lab managers and do very little science by themselves. It is difficult for me to recall Dicks scientific achievements, not because I don't know them but because they are well-known and you can find information about them at many places including here and here. His fundamental contributions to theoretical population genetics, experimental population genetics (outside his lab came first assays for genetic variation at individual loci via both DNA sequencing and electrophoresis), and ecology were significant. He never wrote a boring paper. I will let others (in the flurry of obituaries that are to follow) recount his accomplishments in detail. Dick was a fervent Marxist and we disagreed on this point. He kept his politics and his lab science apart from his politics, which caused no friction. He and Steve Gould, also at Harvard, were motivated to fight biological determinism and particularly sociobiology. This battle lasted throughout my Harvard years. E. O. Wilson was the founder of sociobiology and his lab was only one floor above ours. Although they did not communicate with each other while I was there, Ed was the one who recruited Dick from Chicago to Harvard. Lewontin was a prolific writer of popular pieces, particularly in the New York Review of Books. Many of these articles can be found here. Although he was an excellent writer, he didn't want to be a public figure like Carl Sagan or Steve Gould. After learning that some of his fellow members worked for the Department of Defense, he quit the National Academy of Sciences. Dick eventually retired, but he never seemed old. His hair did not turn gray until he was 75. His short-term memory started to fade over the past decade, but he could still recall the past. In 2009, I interviewed him about his career and life for a piece in Current Biology. It went on so long that it was impossible to cut it or publish it. I have the audio recording from my interview and I may make it available for readers. Let me end by referring to an anecdote that I have told before. It is about how Lewontin found me naked in his office the night I was there. It's embarrassing but not sexual. You can read all about it here. Dick's sense of humor is a testament to his willingness to accept my explanation, and then forget about it. Below are a few photos, and a short video to give you an idea of Lewontins' presence. Around 1976, a group of us were in Dicks' lab. (More photos can be found here.) From top left to right, Russ Lande and Harold Lee (fly-food cook) and Alex Felton as Dicks technician. Bottom: Don Wallace (postdoctoral) and me Andrew Berry took this photo in October 2017 while visiting Dick at his assisted living facility. Here he died. I am showing my loyalty to the Great Man. This is a post that I posted on March 30, 2019, Greg Mayer visited Dick in July 2019. Dick Mayer visiting Dick in July 2019. Dick signed my copy of The Genetic Basis of Evolutionary Change. Dick asked me to review papers for a journal in the which he was editor. I did a great job and received this note of appreciation. It hangs on my office walls. Here's a video that gives you an idea of how it was to talk to Dick. It shows him discussing various topics with Harry Kreisler, who was visiting Berkeley to deliver a series lectures. Kreisler's first question was "What attracted you to the sciences?" Dicks answer was: A charismatic high school teacher. He was also one of two teachers who introduced me to evolutionary biology, Bruce Grant of The College of William and Mary. The work shirt, khakis and green sweater are a nice touch. Dick, it's time to say goodbye. It was great to have you on loan from Universe for so many years.


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