Great Scientists

Richard M. Eakin—Great Scientists Speak Again

Richard Marshall Eakin was a gifted scientist and teacher, and he expressed those gifts in thoughtful and engaging ways. His science dealt primarily with the fine structure of photoreceptors, ranging from a diversity of eyes of invertebrates to the pineal “eye” of lizards. He pioneered techniques in transmission electron microscopy as part of that research, and he had wide-ranging ideas about development, structure, and function. Born in 1910, he entered the University of California, Berkeley, as a junior, received his B. A. in 1931, then his Ph. D. in 1935 under the tutelage of vertebrate morphologist J. Frank Daniel. He was appointed an Instructor the next year, and Assistant Professor in 1940; he spent his entire career at Berkeley, chairing the Department of Zoology twice, and building its excellence. He served the department and the university in many ways until his formal retirement in 1977. He also served in a number of extramural capacities, especially the American Society of Zoologists (now the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology), of which he was President in 1975. Following his retirement, he taught one semester each year for several years at historically-Black colleges, among them Tuskegee Institute and Morehouse University (supporting and driving ASZ/SICB’s and Berkeley’s developing interests in increasing the diversity of scientists in our fields).

It is, of course, his teaching innovations that form the most notable part of his legacy. He taught vertebrate embryology, an upper division majors’ course (for which he wrote and published an excellent laboratory manual), and Zoology 10, a non-majors’ general interest course (which met a breadth requirement of several Berkeley majors and colleges). As he has recorded, he became concerned that students in Zoology 10 were progressively more inattentive and absent, so in the shower one morning in 1970, it hit him that to “dress up and make up as some of the great biologists, and present their discoveries and thoughts in their own words” might relieve his students’ apparent boredom. He tried the experiment, appeared as William Harvey to describe how Harvey learned, through experimentation and observation, that the heart pumped blood through the body. He received a standing ovation, and the rest is history. For the next 17 years (well after his formal retirement), he offered Zoology 10 with six “dress-up” lectures—Harvey, William Beaumont, Gregor Mendel, Hans Spemann (with whom he had done a postdoc), Louis Pasteur, and Charles Darwin, all in elaborate period costume and makeup (shaving his head for Mendel and Darwin, applying different beards for Harvey and Darwin, etc.). Enrollment and attendance dramatically increased, to Eakin’s relief (and pleasure), and he was asked to make his dramatic presentations throughout the country and internationally, including at ASZ. They became a big part of his teaching, at Berkeley and elsewhere. He always maintained (correctly) that he did the “acting” in order to make the content of the lecture more graphic and memorable—and it certainly worked well! Few would have the courage and fortitude (and skill) to try the experiment, let alone carry it on for many years. In the late 1980’s, when he was thinking of stopping teaching, he was persuaded to have the lectures filmed. The films of the presentations given in classes in session had the usual vicissitudes (the barking dog [well, it’s Berkeley], the rustling papers), so Eakin did formal studio films of each lecture. It is these films, as useful today as ever, that are available for our use and pleasure. The Charles Darwin lecture is on YouTube! Dick would have loved that…

Marvalee H. Wake

 

[Eakin, Richard] Charles Darwin

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[Eakin, Richard] Gregor Mendel

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[Eakin, Richard] Hans Spemann and Embryonic Development

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[Eakin, Richard] Louis Pasteur

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[Eakin, Richard] William Beaumont and Alexis' Stomach.

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[Eakin, Richard] William Harvey and the Circulation of the Blood.

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