President's Speeches and Remarks
November 2, 2009
We come together today to remember John Howland. I am humbled to be with you today to speak about a man who had such an impact on this College for so many years, on this Brunswick community, and on so many Bowdoin students—including this Bowdoin student.
I reflect less than many might imagine about my days here as a student—but today, walking across the quad, I couldn't help but think back to the late 60s and 70s. I remember sitting in a room in Appleton Hall with Lehninger's biochemistry book in front of me—cramming in the late night to learn the reactions of the Krebs Cycle for one of John's exams. I remember being in what had to have been one of the very first biochemistry classes at Bowdoin with John. And, most vividly, I think back to those many, many hours in the basement of "old" Searles working in John's lab—doing my honors project with John. It was in that lab, and from John, that I learned that science for the sake of the mystery and the adventure seemed somehow to be a "noble venture."
I am what I would describe as a "lapsed member" of John's scientific community. But this past week, I have received messages about John from scientists all over the United States and the world, including one from Don Krogstad of the Class of 1965, who claims to be the very first student to work with John in his new lab at Bowdoin in 1963, and another from Don Kufe of the Class of 1966. These are members of the real class of John's science—important researchers he inspired for their life careers.
A member of the Bowdoin College Class of 1957, John excelled in biology—his major—graduating with high honors and as a member of Phi Beta Kappa. But his skills went far beyond the laboratory. John was president of the Outing Club, and he was a literary standout. He served on the board of the Quill, Bowdoin's literary publication, and in the year of his graduation, he was recognized with the Forbes Rickard Jr. Poetry Prize—an award given to the undergraduate who has written the best poem.
I remember seeing John and Cynthia at John's 50th reunion with the Bowdoin Class of 1957. Bowdoin was a very different place in 1957, and when I greeted him at that reunion and saw him among his classmates, I couldn't help but wonder what John was thinking. I always found John a shy man—though never shy intellectually. He was a "fearless learner." But sitting among the men of '57 that day, John struck me as a somewhat unique person of his time at the College, a view he likely shared. But, make no mistake— John told me quite enthusiastically that he loved his time as a student at Bowdoin and reveled (maybe more quietly and introspectively than some of his classmates) at the achievement of celebrating his 50th reunion.
After Bowdoin, John earned his doctorate at Harvard. He was a postdoctoral Fellow at the National Institutes of Health in the Netherlands and also studied at Yale Medical College.
He returned to Bowdoin in 1963 as a member of the faculty and was a stalwart here for many years. His influence will long be felt. By 1971—when I was a Bowdoin student studying biology—John had elevated biochemistry to a separate department, and today biochemistry is one of the most popular majors at the College. The measure of a leader in education is, I believe, reflected best by what a person does for his or her generation and what he or she leaves behind. The strength and vitality of our biology and our biochemistry departments are a testament to John—a legacy that has benefited hundreds of Bowdoin students of the past, benefits so many today, and will certainly educate so many others well into the future. John's commitment to his research in this small liberal arts college was a model for future scientists as they came to Bowdoin to fashion their careers as important teachers and serious scientists.
John was also a well-respected researcher and pioneer beyond Bowdoin. He spent years studying the causes of muscular dystrophy and established the theory that the problem lies in the cell membrane. He developed an improved test for identifying carriers of a particular type of muscular dystrophy. He also assisted his colleague Bill Steinhart with research on the spread of the Herpes virus. His professional interests included the early evolution of energy coupling systems, such as photosynthesis and oxidative phosphorylation, as well as bioenergenic aspects of the origin of life.
John was not one to be limited to a particular field, and he continually pursued new areas of interest. He wrote the first book to be published concerning Archaea, a third form of life that was only discovered in the 1970s. This was the stuff of arcane scientific journals and obscure textbooks, until John brought it into the public eye. As one colleague noted at the time, "We had all heard of it, but he made sure it kept coming up in conversation."
That same colleague said John was probably the most widely read of Bowdoin's science faculty, and that his greatest contribution was "his intellectual breadth, including music and literature."
John had so many interests, among them, renaissance and baroque music, the esoteric aspects of fly-fishing, the writing of M. F. K. Fisher, and the geography of Penobscot Bay as viewed from the water. He played both the harpsichord and the lute, and was long interested in birds. In fact, he once said that his initial interest in Bowdoin could be traced to an ornithologist here.
The idea of slowing down or taking it easy was apparently not a part of John's constitution. On the eve of his retirement in 2002, he impressed a new colleague on the faculty with the announcement that he intended to start a new career in soil microbiology.
John appreciated the fact that the pursuit of scientific knowledge never stops and he valued the unpredictability of science. When advising non-scientists on how to be scientifically literate, among the points he made were that "the history of science teaches that going with the loonies is often not a bad idea" and that "truth is the one thing that is never assured in science."
To those of us who knew him, John was a person of great wit who expressed his "sheer joy at the complexity of life." He loved discovery. He once said, "Science, when it is good, is one of the supreme adventures of the human spirit and those who turn their backsides toward it are likely to miss out on a great deal of fun."
John Howland has been a much loved and respected member of the Bowdoin community for more than a half century. We are grateful to him for taking us—his students and his colleagues—along on his "adventure," and for his many important and lasting contributions to his field, his college, and to our community.
In so many ways, we all aspire to be John Howlands. The forces today of specialization and narrow perspective in education and in life make it all the more difficult. John was fortunate to grow up in a time when these forces had much less influence. The testament to John is that as these limiting and restricting forces gained momentum—John, the Renaissance man—stood his ground for education and learning in the broadest sense. Bowdoin is a place for learning and to learn well, and we will all remember John and his lessons and example.