ColinPittendrigh.jpg
ColinPittendrigh.jpg

COLIN S. PITTENDRIGH (1919-1996)

Colin S. Pittendrigh, the Harold A. Miller Professor, emeritus, of
Biology and former Director of the Hopkins Marine Station died at his
home in Bozeman, Montana on March 19 of last year, of cancer. His many
legacies to Stanford include an extraordinary record of scholarship, a
vital and growing academic program in marine biology, a legendary
reputation as a teacher, and a set of policies that still shape the
membership and rights of the Stanford professoriate.

Pitt was a Tynesider, born in Whitley Bay, England and educated at the
University of Durham. During World War II, his scientific career was
launched in an unexpected way. The British Government assigned him to
duty in Trinidad, to explore ways of protecting troops from malarial
infection. As an employee of the Rockefeller Foundation there, he
launched investigations that eventually came to embrace the distribution
and evolution of Bromeliads, their ecological relationships with the
Anopheline mosquitoes that serve as malaria vectors, their rhythmic
diurnal activity -- a forerunner of his lifelong interest in biological
clocks -- and the epidemiology of the disease itself. These studies
resulted in a series of papers published after the war, when Pittendrigh
had come to the United States and begun Ph.D. studies at Columbia under
the great evolutionary geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky. Much later,
the Trinidad years came back to life in a series of Human Biology
lectures that some four thousand Stanford students heard, and an
astonishing proportion actually remember.

When he had finished at Columbia in 1947, Pittendrigh accepted a faculty
appointment at Princeton. There he began a remarkable series of
experiments on the nature of biological time-keeping -- first
establishing that in a variety of organisms, activity and other
periodicities of about 24 hours were innate and not, as had been thought
by many scientists, driven by some environmental signal. His research
combined innovative theory with ingenious experiment, and the thread of
his work continued despite conflicting demands and several moves. He
explored in beautiful detail the properties of the internal pacemaker,
and its entrainment by the diurnal cycle of light and darkness,
developing an oscillator model which he used to generate and test
further hypotheses. A self-described Darwinian clock-watcher, he is
universally acknowledged as the founder of "circadian" biology. He
viewed these rhythms as a basic adaptation that enabled organisms on a
24-hour planet to program their activities effectively, and his findings
have proved basic to our present understanding of human sleep and
wakefulness, hibernation and celestial navigation in animals, and a host
o f other phenomena not excluding the jet-lag from which he himself
occasionally complained. His work won him election to the National
Academy of Sciences and to fellowship in the American Academy of Arts
and Sciences.

His scientific interests were not confined to biological rhythms. The
basic biology course he developed at Princeton painted on a broad
evolutionary canvas, and with the great paleontologist George Gaylord
Simpson he wrote a remarkable introductory textbook whose title --
appropriately -- was simply: "Life." At Stanford he provided the
keystone for the development of the Human Biology program: even before
moving, he was one of the "Founding Fathers" who planned the major, and
other volunteers joined up in part because he was so much fun to be
around. The course he developed to introduce the core was enlivened by
Pitt's ability as a raconteur, but its scope and rigor asked a great
deal of its freshman audience.

Though born in Britain, Pitt was quintessentially American in his
entrepreneurial spirit and his larger-than-life persona. President
Richard Lyman once called him, without much exaggeration, Churchillian.
He became a United States citizen in 1950; by the time he was joining
the Stanford faculty in 1968, his Department chair-to-be was able to
write, in response to the question on the Advisory Board forms that asks
about the ability of foreign-born candidates to command English: "Dr.
Pittendrigh was born a few miles below the Scottish border....(but) his
brogue has been reduced to a point at which it is entirely inoffensive
to the average American audience." To the members of this committee it
was charming as well.

Pittendrigh's fondness for fly fishing brought him to establish a cabin
on the Clark Fork of the Yellowstone, in Wyoming, while he was still at
Princeton. Its relative propinquity to the West Coast made it much
easier to recruit him to the Department of Biological Sciences at
Stanford, and he soon collected a cadre of stream companions --
including several members of this faculty. This group soon
metamorphosed into an organization known as the Mr. Flood Society,
devoted to the pursuit of trout as well as wines of no particular
distinction. His wife Mikey not only tolerated these pursuits but
abetted them with unfailing cheerfulness and was loved by all. His
children, Robin and Colin Jr. (Sandy), became friends with the other
Floods, and Sandy sometimes fished with them. The two Pittendrigh
grandchildren -- referred to sometimes by their grandfather as "the F2"
-- are growing up in the Rocky Mountains, just as he would have wished
for himself.

Pitt was not only a scholar and teacher of the very first rank; he
practiced good academic citizenship wherever he was. At Princeton he
served as Dean of the Graduate School; at Stanford he helped found the
Program in Human Biology -- in which connection he held the Bing
Professorship. Later he agreed to lead the first Committee on the
Professoriate, a long (and, some would say, thankless) task that
established the basic road-map for faculty status at Stanford. Later
still he changed chairs, relinquishing Bing for Miller and becoming the
Director of the Hopkins Marine Station. In that role he served for
eight years, during which the Station added new faculty appointments,
new facilities, and a much enhanced reputation.

At Hopkins, Pittendrigh had a powerful impact on the development of
Monterey Bay as an important marine science community. Arriving in the
wake of a critical visiting committee report, he set eagerly to the work
of rejuvenation. He helped to fan the interest of David and Lucille
Packard and their family in the development of the Monterey Bay
Aquarium, and shepherded the transfer of the Stanford-owned Hovden
Cannery to help make that venture possible. He later added his
enthusiasm and advice to the Aquarium as a Trustee. And the warmth of
his ties to the Monterey Peninsula survives him in the Friends of the
Hopkins Marine Station, the group he founded that continues to provide
vital support to the Station today.

The collateral activities of a rich academic career absorbed a great
deal of the life Pittendrigh spent outside the laboratory and the
lecture hall. He had an outstanding list of doctoral students and post-
doctoral fellows -- several of whom now comprise a second leadership
generation in the field he founded. Much earlier, he chaired a National
Academy committee on Mars exploration, and then served as a science
advisor to the Administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space
Administration. He was a winner of the Alexander von Humboldt Prize and
a Guggenheim Fellowship, a President of the American Society of
Naturalists, and Vice-president of the American Association for the
Advancement of Science.

A whole series of inspiring and meaningful relationships with new
colleagues and students unfolded as Pittendrigh moved his work-station
from Princeton to Palo Alto to Pacific Grove and then, in quasi-
retirement, in Sonoita, Arizona and Bozeman. At Princeton and at
Stanford, Pitt attracted collaborators and made new friends with
stunning speed. And in each of the last-named locales he established an
academic connection (with, respectively, the University of Arizona and
Montana State.) His advice and his lecturing skills were exploited in
both places, and in each he established a small working laboratory and
relationships with new colleagues who came to admire him just as we had.
He was still working on clocks, in Bozeman, when his own ran out.