September 2, 2014

John Bonner Buck

Dr. John Bonner Buck, who achieved preeminence as a biologist for his studies in bioluminescence, died peacefully at his home in Sykesville, MD on March 30, 2005, aged 92.

Dr. Buck’s scientific career began one summer during his undergraduate studies at The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, when he undertook an investigation into the flashing behavior of a local firefly species, Photinus pyralis, which abounds in Baltimore every July. Working in his back yard, aided by a schoolboy neighbor, he timed flashes and measured temperature and ambient light with equipment from the departmental storeroom. This study revealed that the timing of the flashing was the basis of the dialog between these insects. He subsequently completed his Ph.D. also at Johns Hopkins, working under Professor S.O. Mast. His thesis, published in 1937, reported on periodicity and diurnal rhythm, plainly showing what must have been one of the earliest examples of a circadian rhythm involving bioluminescence. In 1939 Dr. Buck married Professor Mast’s daughter Elisabeth, who continued as his wife and research companion throughout the remaining 65 years of his life.

Following postdoctoral studies at the California Institute of Technology, where Dr. Buck pursued cytological interests, he spent two years at the Carnegie Institute as a Research Associate, and then joined the faculty at the University of Rochester. He moved in 1945 to The National Institutes of Health, where he later became head of the Laboratory of Physical Biology. Reflecting his own wide interests, the Laboratory pursued research on vision, photosynthesis, muscle physiology, insect respiration, and many aspects of bioluminescence. He remained at NIH until his retirement into emeritus status in 1985, after which he continued regular publication of research papers, his last appearing in the Journal of Insect Behavior in 2002.

From 1933 until the end of his life he conducted his research during the summer months at the Marine Biology Laboratory in Woods Hole, MA, instructing on the Laboratory’s famous Invertebrate course in 1942 -1944 and again in 1957 -1959, and acting as a Corporation member during 1937 -1985 and a Trustee of the Laboratory during 1959 -1977.

Dr. Buck became interested in the synchronous flashing reported, as early as 1680, to occur in some tropical firefly species, and this topic dominated his work subsequent to his observing it first-hand in Thailand and Borneo in 1965 and again in 1969, when he led the National Science Foundation’s South East Asian Bioluminescence Expedition to Papua-New Guinea on the research vessel Alpha Helix. The synchrony modeling effort begun by Dr. Buck grew into a fascinating example of comparative behavioral physiology, showing that the same observed behavior – flash synchrony – is achieved and maintained in quite different ways by different species. He was one of the earliest to theorize about the evolutionary and adaptive significance of bioluminescence, including marine bioluminescence, and synchrony. His chapter in Peter Herring’s landmark volume, Bioluminescence in Action remains a frequently cited work on the functions of bioluminescence across all phyla.

Dr. Buck had wide-ranging interests outside his scientific work. His honeymoon included an ascent of the Grand Teton. He participated for many years in the Woods Hole Yacht Club’s Cape Cod Knockabout racing series, and wrote entertaining reports on the races for the Falmouth Enterprise newspaper under the pseudonym Old Salt. He was also a prolific poet, essayist and photographer.

He was an ardent pacifist, registering as a conscientious objector during the Second World War. He became a convinced Quaker following his move from Rochester to NIH. He stood a weekly vigil throughout the Vietnam War, and helped found the Bethesda Friends – Meeting. He was active in environmental causes, and in the pursuit of nuclear disarmament and civil rights.

Dr. Buck was much loved, and will be deeply missed by his wife of 65 years, Elisabeth (Mast) Buck, of Sykesville, MD and Woods Hole, MA; his two sons, Peter Mast Buck of Alexandria VA, and Alan Brewster Buck of Pocasset, MA; his daughters, Susan Buck Hibbitt of Bristol, RI, and Judith Buck Gyovai of Brownfield, ME and Woods Hole, MA; and his twelve grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

Memorial contributions may be made to the John and Elisabeth Buck Scholarship, Marine Biological Laboratory, Woods Hole, MA 02543.