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Prof. Frank Gwilliam, Biologist with Backbone

By Chris Lydgate ’90 on November 30, 2016 09:36 AM

Prof. Gwilliam mentored generations of Reed students.

We are sad to report that Prof. G. Frank Gwilliam [biology 1957–96], who mentored generations of students for the better part of four decades, died on Sunday. He was 91 years old.

Prof. Gwilliam was born in 1925 and grew up in Salt Lake City. His father died of influenza when he was 11 years old. Following the outbreak of WWII, he joined the US Navy at the age of 17 and served as a hospital corpsman aboard the USS Doyen, an amphibious personnel assault vessel, which took part in numerous island invasions in the Pacific theater, including Kiska, Tarawa, the Marshall Islands, Saipan, Guam, Leyte Gulf, Lingayen Gulf, and Iwo Jima.

After the war, he earned a BA and PhD in biology from UC Berkeley and did a Rockefeller Postdoctoral Fellowship in marine biology. He was recruited to Reed by Prof. Lew Kleinholz [biology 1946-80].

Prof. Gwilliam introduced generations of Reed students to the discipline of biology.

“Frank Gwilliam taught me how to channel a love of biology into rigorous research, how to keep my curiosity alive and healthy, and by superb example, how to mentor, challenge, and nourish younger minds,” Jack Bradbury ’63 told Reed magazine in 2001.

“He was always one of my favorites!” says Marguerite Cohen ’75. “I still have a copy of Animals without Backbones on my shelf. We made a very early morning trek to Depoe Bay to collect sea lettuces, and I made it back to Portland in time to get to my Intro Math lecture.”

“I have such happy memories of dissecting lamprey and outdoor explorations and the dog named Clarissa,” says Robin Tovey ’97, who took Intro Bio with Prof. Gwilliam.

Gwilliam was an influential researcher who authored at least 20 scientific papers on everything from the sensitivity of crabs’ legs to the motor neurons of insects. Fascinated by the neural mechanisms underlying behavior, he wrote several papers on the so-called “shadow reflex” of barnacles, which retract their feeding appendices when they sense a loss of light, indicating the presence of a predator. Electrical recordings identified the neural pathways controlling the reflex.

“He was a good mentor to me when I first got to Reed,” says Prof. Janis Shampay [bio 1990–]. “He’d been around the block, he knew everything, and he had sage advice for me as a junior professor.”

“Prof. Gwilliam was a kind and gentle man, and I have always counted him as a good friend,” says Prof. Bob Kaplan [1983–2015]. “His mentorship to me as a new professor at Reed in 1983 meant a lot to me.  As colleagues, we spent many wonderful hours talking about invertebrate diversity and animal behavior. What a gem he was and his influence on the curriculum will last for generations to come.”

Gwilliam served as provost (now known as dean of the faculty) from 1979–81, after which he returned to teaching full time. Announcing his departure from that role, President Paul Bragdon told the faculty that “Mr. Gwilliam, with the President’s thanks and blessings, has gleefully fled the office of provost.”

Prof. Gwilliam is survived by his wife, Marjorie, and their children, Tassie and Jeff.

We hope you'll consider honoring his legacy with a gift to Reed. Please visit our giving site and indicate the "G. Frank Gwilliam Memorial Scholarship " in the notes section.

A memorial service for Prof. Gwilliam will be held Saturday, March 11 at 10:30 a.m. in the Reed Chapel.