July 25, 2014

William H. Telfer

Bill Telfer died in Newton after a brief illness at the age of 86.

Born in Seattle in 1924 and raised in Portland, Oregon, he and his boyhood friends were ardent bird watchers and naturalists who would bicycle any distance to reach prime birding spots. His undergraduate years at Reed College were interrupted by service in WWII, but he returned to finish his degree in 1948 and entered graduate school at Harvard soon after.

Bill’s Ph.D. research with Carrol Williams at Harvard marked the beginning of a lifelong study of oogenesis in insects. For much of his career he used the beautiful North American saturniid moth, Cecropia, as a model. Well suited to biochemical analysis and experimental manipulation, it could also be raised under nets on cherry trees in the back yard. After an early seminal discovery that the large, rapidly-growing oocytes of Cecropia derive their protein stores mainly by selective uptake of a female-specific protein (vitellogen) from the hemolymph rather than by ovarian synthesis, Bill and his students extensively characterized the organismal, cellular, and developmental biology of this unique process. Novel significant findings included: synthesis of vitellogen by the insect’s fat body; regulation of materials transfer between cellular components of the ovarian follicle by electrical potentials and ion currents; active regulatory and synthetic contributions of the enveloping follicular epithelium to yolk development; and a terminal growth phase devoted to water storage. The latter remarkable developmental program switch is regulated within the follicle and controlled by cyclic AMP/protein kinase A signaling.

Bill met his future wife, Mary Andrus, at Harvard in a graduate course on non-vascular plants. They married in 1950. After three years as a Harvard Junior Fellow and two summers at the MBL, Bill joined the Department of Biology at the University of Pennsylvania in 1954. He was Department Chair from 1972-76 and was named the inaugural Class of 1939 Professor of Natural Science in 1991. Bill taught in the MBL’s Fertilization and Gamete Physiology course in the late 60’s and early 70’s. He was a Guggenheim Fellow from 1960-61 at Stanford and a von Humbolt Research Award recipient in 1976. Bill became an Emeritus Professor in 1994 but stayed engaged in research and writing at Penn for another ten years before he and Mary moved permanently to Quissett. Well into retirement, at the age of 84, he published an extensive review of100 years of research on egg formation in Lepidoptera, with the aim of stimulating future research.

Bill is survived by two daughters, a granddaughter, and their families.