Philip B. Dunham

In Memoriam: Philip B. Dunham (1937-2014)

Photo courtesy of the Syracuse University Department of Biology Archives

Photo courtesy of the Syracuse University Department of Biology Archives

Philip Bigelow Dunham, Emeritus Professor of Biology at Syracuse University, died on June 3, 2014.
He was born in Columbus, Ohio, graduated from Swarthmore College with a degree in zoology and obtained his Ph.D. in 1962 from the University of Chicago under H. Burr Steinbach whose summer affiliation with the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole brought this mecca to the attention of his promising student. Dunham worked summers at MBL with Frank M. Child of the University of Chicago using the protozoan Tetrahymena and continued to use this cell as a post-doc at the Carlsberg Laboratory in Copenhagen and then went on to exploit its virtues into the first decades of his career.

In 1963, Dunham joined the Zoology faculty at Syracuse University and remained there for his entire professional career. He and his students studied ion regulation in both Tetrahymena and mammalian red cells. He was devoted to his research and students in the lab and yet he was also a dedicated and accomplished classroom teacher. Many Syracuse undergraduates considered him the finest teacher they had had. But his graduate students knew him best. Judith Pederson (nee Bennett), now a marine ecologist at MIT, remembers how she was in awe of this young professor (only a few years older than the incoming graduate class). “He was well versed in science, articulate, and knowledgeable in so many areas – art, literature, history, and more. As a mentor and professor, Phil was inspiring to those of us in his laboratory. We learned the skills to be a research scientist and how to think about our work, the questions we wanted to ask, and how to write papers and proposals. Phil was happy to spend time with the graduate students, often joining us at gatherings after hours, hosting us at his house and generally available for new experiences. I was fortunate to have been one of his students and to have followed his lead. I shall miss him very much.”

Another graduate student at Syracuse at the time, Edna Kaneshiro, Distinguished University Professor at the University of Cincinnati recounted: “Phil was a patient and considerate teacher. I recall not understanding how to calculate the extracellular space (inulin space) of a packed pellet of cells. I was rather embarrassed when I told him I was just not “getting it” but I knew I needed to do all these calculations to get accurate intracellular solute concentrations. He did not handle the situation as if I were a slow learner but just sat down with me and spent considerable time going over how to do this without making me feel like I was a dolt.”

From 1960-1968 Phil’s research interests were diverse but centered around ion physiology: ion distributions in lobster muscle, transport of sodium and potassium in the muscle of a freshwater clam, osmoregulation in a marine ciliate, the contractile vacuoles of Tetrahymena and Amoeba, ionic distribution in Amoeba and potassium redistribution and water movements in crayfish muscle fibers. And, over a dozen fruitful summers at MBL (1974-1986), in collaboration with Gerald Weissmann (New York University), he worked on liposomes and dogfish phagocytes, studied anion fluxes in neutrophils, as well as calcium ion fluxes in marine sponge cell aggregation. In 1969 the focus of his research changed when he received a USPHS Special Fellowship and spent a sabbatical year with Joseph Hoffman in the Department of Physiology at the Yale University School of Medicine. There he took up the study of red blood cells focusing on the membrane transport of Na+ and K+, which became the principal focus of his work for the remainder of his professional career. His work resulted in providing new insights into the mechanisms by which these ions are transported as well as showing how these mechanisms function in other types of cells.

Over a half century of research, Dunham published 118 full length papers. A telling measure of the importance and quality of his research was that his research program enjoyed uninterrupted NIH grant support from 1964-2004.

Dunham was a member of the Society of General Physiologists, the Biophysical Society and the Red Cell Club, of which the September 19-20, 2014 meeting in Toronto was dedicated to him. He served on the Editorial Boards of the Journal of General Physiology (1974-1977; 2001-2004), Physiological Reviews (1979-84) and the American Journal of Physiology: Cell Physiology (1981-2002).

He is survived by his wife Gudrun Bjarnarson, a sister Janet Watton, a brother Sam Hipsher and his wife Nancy, as well as several nieces and nephews. He will be remembered by his family, students, colleagues and friends as a gifted physiologist and an engaging presence.

(Adapted from a tribute by Irwin Sherman, Professor Emeritus, University of California, Riverside.)