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Photo of William L. Brown, Jr.

WLB Library | Acknowledgements | WLB Obituary 1 | WLB Obituary 2

Memorial

The following is the text of a memorial delivered in honor of Bill Brown by Ted Schultz at a gathering in Anabel Taylor Chapel at Cornell University on Saturday, May 17, 1997.

Bill Brown

I had the great privilege of being Bill Brown's last graduate student. I spent seven years in the lab with Bill, and for the great majority of those years I was the only other person working in that lab, enjoying Bill's company on a daily basis.

I guess my very favorite thing about Bill was that he was the antithesis of the sterotypical ivory-tower stuffed-shirt academic. He rose up from humble origins and shot to the top of his field through sheer force of intellect and knowledge. He liked to poke fun at pomposity and self-importance whenever he saw the opportunity.

Before I became a graduate student I went on a tour of potential graduate institutions. I stopped in at Harvard where, in the room housing the ant collection, they have a rogue's gallery of photographs of various ant biologists. There I saw my first visual image of Bill Brown, and I was appalled. It was a small color snapshot of what looked like a truck driver wearing a baseball style cap with the slogan emblazoned across it: "Guns, God, and Guts: Three Things That Made America Great." My next stop was to be Cornell and Bill Brown and I seriously thought of cancelling. During my time at Cornell I saw Bill wear that hat numerous times. He didn't believe in its slogan, but he got a real kick out of the horrified reactions it provoked.

Being a student or former student of Bill Brown opens a lot of doors, because, aside from scholarly prestige, during their careers both Bill and Doris generated a lot of good feelings and gratitude in a lot of people all over the world. Mentioning Bill's name to an ant biologist is usually an invitation to hear a story about how Bill's kindness and encouragement helped to launch them on their way. One example that comes to mind is Barry Bolton, perhaps the premier ant systematist working today. Barry recently said that "it was Bill who was my first mentor and got me really interested in ant taxonomy (I started life as an insect pathologist but Bill showed me the error of my ways)." Other biologists who have immediately spoken of Bill's kindnesses upon the mention of his name include Bert Hölldobler and Christian Peeters.

This was a quality of Bill's, to care about other people and the work they were doing. Bill trained a lot of grad students over the course of the nearly 40 years that he was at Cornell. Those people and the work that they're doing are a part of the Brown legacy, and he was justifiably proud of them. Something that's less likely to be recorded in superficial histories of Bill's accomplishments is the strong influence he exerted on many young organismal biologists through informal encouragement and through teaching. Mike Braun, the director of the molecular systematics lab at the Smithsonian, and Doug Futuyma, the Stony Brook evolutionary biologist, are two leaders in their fields who both have told me that their lives were changed by Bill Brown's evolution course, which they separately took while they were undergraduates at Cornell. They've both said that they were especially inspired by the breadth of Bill Brown's knowledge of natural history and the wealth of examples drawn from firsthand knowledge. That's a really rare thing. There are probably a number of good evolutionary biology courses being taught around the country at this time by competent instructors with a good command of evolutionary theory and a familiarity with some part of nature, but there are few if any being taught by someone with the expansive naturalist's knowledge of Bill Brown. They almost don't make them like that anymore.

I'm sure Bill got a much greater kick out of interacting with students than he did out of interacting with other faculty. Even though he was older than most of the other Cornell entomology professors, and even after he had ascended to emeritus status, he was always up for joining a group of grad students for a few beers at a local pub. I remember one semester when the grad students organized a systematics discussion group and Bill was the only faculty member to show up. Week after week, he was ready to get down and argue about the papers we were reading. And he was constantly suggesting get-togethers and parties, inviting troops of entomology students over to his house where we'd be hosted by Bill and Doris, drinking beer and talking late into the night.

Another thing I greatly admired about Bill was his honesty. This honesty was a basic innate trait that extended into all areas of his life, personal and professional. He had very definite ideas about right and wrong, and those ideas were uncomplicated. Academic politics involving personal advancement and power did not, as far as I could tell, figure anywhere into the Brown equation. In Bill's lab it was just kind of a given that we should be forthright in our opinions and up front in our interactions, and I found that to be immensely refreshing. As a grad student you are learning the etiquette and politics of science from those around you, especially from your major professor. The Brown formula seemed to be "do good work and ignore the politics," and I for one am forever grateful for that example.

I'm sure everyone here knows that Bill loved to tell stories. During my time in his lab I spent many hours listening to recollections of exotic collecting locales, famous scientists past and present, adventures in China during World War II, pranks played in graduate school, and on and on. Just when I thought I'd heard them all ? multiple times each ? he would surprise me with a new one. For instance, when I traveled to Brasil with him last year, he told me about how as a high school student he had run away from home one summer with a ne'er-do-well named something like "Petey" putting on free-lance carnival acts in towns throughout the Southeast. These acts consisted of announcing in advance that they were going to perform a stunt like jumping off a bridge into the local river, dressing up like clowns, collecting an admission fee from the local populace, and jumping. Eventually they teamed up with other traveling carnies, some of them criminal types, and wound up in jail in Florida. After a few days the local sheriff separated out the less criminal of the lot, drove them to the Florida border, and warned them never to return. Bill returned home to his worried sick parents, and presumably two years later he was a freshman at Penn State. I was amazed at that story, which he told in a matter-of-fact way. This just renewed my idea to at some point record the best of those stories, but now, regrettably, I will not have that chance.

As much as Bill enjoyed spending hours telling stories like those, he would never think of writing them down himself, as far as I know. I think his opinion about setting down anything biographical was that if he was going to be doing any writing, then it ought to be writing up the Ponerinae Part 7a, which was the large project he was working on over the past decade. But I do know that he was pleased by the recording of at least some of his life story in the recent book The Earth Dwellers by Erich Hoyt, and I'm very glad that he was able to receive at least some popular attention through the publication of that book.

Bill will not be forgotten, and I don't just mean by those of us in this room or by those of us in this generation. The body of work he produced is truly timeless, and will be referred to by generations hence. This is true for three reasons: First, unlike many scientific disciplines, the literature of systematics never loses its usefulness. In my work I refer every day to papers that are over a century old. Second, Bill's body of work is a paradigm of excellence. Ant systematics has had some truly great scientists ? Gustav Mayr and Carlo Emery, for instance ? but Bill's constellation shines above them all. Third, specimens collected by Bill from remote locations all over the world constitute an immensely important and in many cases unique source of biological information.

In my own small way, I intend to see that Bill's work continues, as will all of us who were trained by him. It is very clear to me that there is no way I can ever hope to approach the scope and magnitude of Bill's accomplishments, but I am very proud to have been Bill's last student, and I intend to carry on the truly great Brown tradition in evolutionary systematic biology.

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