Eric H. Davidson

Eric H DavidsonThe MBL mourns the passing of Trustee Emeritus and Society Member Dr. Eric H. Davidson, a giant in the field of developmental biology and genomics and a longtime MBL course co-director and faculty member, who passed away on September 1, 2015 at the age of 77. The MBL flag will be lowered in his memory.

By elucidating the concept of gene regulatory networks in complex genomes, Dr. Davidson made great contributions to the current understanding of animal development and evolution. His pioneering work helped lead the way to unlocking the secrets of development, knowledge that is crucial to understanding the complexities of biological life, including some of today’s most devastating diseases. A series of prescient papers in the late 1960s and 1970s with his colleague Roy Britten opened new fields of thought and discovery in gene regulation, genomics, repetitive DNA, and evolution.

Dr. Davidson had a long connection with the MBL, having spent time at the laboratory as a student, faculty, and trustee. He first came to the MBL in 1953 as a teenager working in the laboratory of L.V. Heilbrunn (see his recollection of the experience below).

Dr. Davidson returned to Woods Hole for a total of 15 years in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s to direct the MBL’s Embryology course, and served as an MBL Trustee from 1991 to 1996.  He was co-director of MBL’s Gene Regulatory Networks for Development course, which he initiated in 2009.

Dr. Davidson was the Norman Chandler Professor of Cell Biology at the California Institute of Technology, where he has been on the faculty since 1971.  He earned his B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania in 1958 and Ph.D. from Rockefeller University in 1963, where he remained on the faculty until 1971.

Dr. Davidson was elected to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in 1985 and in 2011 was awarded the prestigious International Prize for Biology from The Japan Society for the Promotion of Science.

In the excerpt below, Dr. Davidson recalls the MBL research experience that launched his career in science (excerpted from a 2012 interview in Current Biology 22,: R216-R217):

“…And so that summer I went to Provincetown, Massachusetts as always, for that was the location of the art school of my father, Morris Davidson, who was then a famous painter. He made an arrangement with one of his art students that by another serendipity a week later had landed me in a wonderful laboratory at the Woods Hole Marine [Biological] Laboratory (MBL), just at the other end of Cape Cod. The student was Ellen Donovan, the wife of Prof. L.V. Heilbrunn and an artist in her own right. L.V. was an MBL scientific institution. I was to wash dishes in his lab, and to make my keep, at night collect whatever biological wastes each lab had put outside its door, ground up horse meat, empty clam shells, dead sea urchins, whatever. But when I walked in the door, ‘Boss’, as L.V. was universally known, growled at me “You are going to do research if you are going to be in my lab!” He gave me a problem, and a clue to the possible answer, and the rest is history. It was 1953, and my first publication describing the successful conclusion of that summer’s work was in the 1954 Biological Bulletin Abstracts of the previous summer’s research proceedings. In August, I had had the terrifying experience of presenting this work in the big auditorium before the whole MBL Corporation. But on the strength of that project I later that year became a Westinghouse Science Talent Search Winner, and on the strength of that I got to go to the University of Pennsylvania where ‘Boss’ worked the rest of the year. I spent most of my four years of college in his lab there, except for a few required courses; then on the strength of Boss’ recommendation to me, the next step was the graduate program at Rockefeller, and the intellectual rigor of my next boss, my PhD advisor Alfred Mirsky…”