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Biologist with Backbone

Prof. Frank Gwilliam [biology 1957–96]

Marine biologist and neuroscientist Prof. Frank Gwilliam introduced generations of Reed students to the discipline of biology.

He grew up in Salt Lake City. His father died of influenza when he was 11 years old. He joined the navy at the age of 17, serving 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 graduating from UC Berkeley, he served in Japan during the Korean War, and then received his PhD in zoology from UC Berkeley and did a Rockefeller postdoctoral fellowship in marine biology.

Gwilliam’s fascination with “critters” began in childhood, and his encounter with a coral reef off a Pacific island during WWII ignited a lifelong passion for marine invertebrates. He was recruited to Reed by Prof. Lew Kleinholz [biology 1946–80] in 1957. He wholeheartedly enjoyed his work as a neuroscientist, a teacher, and a mentor of Reed students. With everyone in his life, he was loving, supportive, and funny

“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 to 1981, after which he returned to teaching. Announcing his departure from that role, President Paul Bragdon told the faculty, “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. Honor him with a contribution to the G. Frank Gwilliam Memorial Scholarship: reed.edu/givingtoreed.

Appeared in Reed magazine: March 2017

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