October 19, 2009
To Members of the Bowdoin Community,
I am very sorry to inform you of the death of John L. Howland of Harpswell, our Josiah Little Professor of Natural Sciences and Professor of Biology and Biochemistry Emeritus. John passed away yesterday at the age of 73 following a brief illness.
John Howland was best known for his research into causes of muscular dystrophy and the cell biochemistry of genetic disorders. His research into the causes of muscular dystrophy led to a new theory, envisioning it as a genetic defect in membrane configuration in a number of tissues other than muscle. Symptoms of the disease usually appear in childhood or early adolescence, causing progressive deterioration of the muscles that move the body's extremities. John found that structural changes led to alteration in function, notably in altered abilities of the various membranes to transmit positive ions, such as potassium. His approach contradicted much of the accepted theory regarding the disease, which held that it was purely a muscular disorder. In 1974 the weekly scientific publication Current Science hailed John's research as opening a "brand-new front" against the disease.
John joined the Bowdoin faculty in 1963 as assistant professor of biology. He was promoted to associate professor in 1967, and became professor in 1977. He was named to the Josiah Little professorship in 1977, and was chair of the department of biology during several periods. He retired in 2002.
Born in Quincy, Mass., on December 14, 1935, John graduated cum laude from Bowdoin in l957 as a member of Phi Beta Kappa. He studied at Yale University Medical School in 1957-58, and then at Harvard, where he received his Ph.D. in 1961. He was a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands for the next two years.
He was the author of three textbooks, Introduction to Cell Physiology, Cell Physiology, and Environmental Physiology, and co-author of a fourth, A Mathematical Approach to Biology. He also wrote the first book on the Archaea in 2000, The Surprising Archaea: Discovering a New Domain of Life. He published many scholarly articles in professional journals, and his research was widely reported on both sides of the Atlantic. He was the recipient of numerous grants for his research from the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Public Health Service, the American Heart Association, and other foundations and funding agencies. Howland was awarded a U.S. Public Health Service Research Career Development Award.
At Bowdoin, John was active in the College's Senior Center program. The program, which began in 1964 and continued for fifteen years, offered a series of special seminars to seniors. John served as faculty representative to Bowdoin's Board of Trustees and Board of Overseers. In 1964 he appeared on the Jerry Lewis Telethon to explain his research in the fight against muscular dystrophy. John was a member of the Biochemical Society of Great Britain. By 1971, John had elevated biochemistry to a separate department, and it is now one of the most popular majors at the College.
John is survived by his wife, Cynthia, whom he married in 1961; a son, Ethan J. Howland of Portland; a daughter, Hannah H. Judson of Chicago; and five grandchildren. Memorial arrangements are pending and details will be provided to the Bowdoin community when they become available.
Known for his wit and for making science fun, John once said, "science, when it is good, is one of the supreme adventures of the human spirit." We are grateful to John for sharing that adventure with us and with his students, and for his many contributions to science and to Bowdoin. I know that each of you joins me in extending Bowdoin's sincere condolences to Cynthia and to the rest of the Howland family at this very difficult time.