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Alumni Feature: Bob Wilkinson's Recollections

Who says we never hear from 1950s alumni?

The editors of The Niche were delighted to hear from Robert (Bob) Wilkinson, a biology major from the esteemed class of 1954. He was kind enough to provide us a first-person account of some of his memories from the Biology Department and William and Mary from his undergraduate days.

I was distressed to note that in a recent Biology Department newsletter, no one from my antediluvian era of the 1950s had written anything about the Department  as we found it.   Perhaps this will stimulate others to write in, if for no other reason than to refute my distortions or outright confabulations.  As our Psychology brethren have pointed out, the mind can create incidents which the individual feels to be accurate but are to a greater or lesser degree lacking in fact.  With that exculpatory introduction, I shall proceed.

J.T. Baldwin: W&M Alumni ('32) and Professor of BiologyThe first half of the 1950s found me at the College as an undergraduate majoring in Biology and Beer.  The Chairman of the Biology Department was John T. Baldwin, Jr. PhD (known to his colleagues, I believe as “J. T.”.)  A truly remarkable man whose knowledge and love of obscure plants and trees was enhanced by a trip up the Amazon allegedly as far as any non-native Brazilian had gone at the time and survived to return home,  and field work in Africa.  These occurred about the time of World War II and one may speculate that these trips may have been more than solely academic collecting. Perhaps seeking medically useful botanical specimens? This needs an historian’s research. [Editor's note: We found a Flat Hat article about J.T. Baldwin in SWEM's archives dating to 1952 here].

 In the Department was Bernice Speese, PhD, a close friend of Dr. Baldwin’s.  She was addressed as “Miss Speese” a “title” which would be totally inappropriate today given her doctoral degree.  She was kind, unassuming, and very bright.  As others have noted to which I agree whole heartedly, she never received the accolades she deserved.  But such were the times.  A Dr. Armstrong taught among other things, Comparative Anatomy and Embryology.  He was a talented and demanding teacher.  Bustling about her laboratory was Ms. Blank.   Small in stature, a dedicated teacher, she would not tolerate any nonsense.  Holding a Master’s degree, she had more knowledge than many with doctorates, a not uncommon occurrence in Science.  She taught Physiology, Microbiology and a course or courses for undergrads in the Physical Education program.  Again this habit of addressing her as “Miss” was routine,   At least it could have been “Professor.”

All of the aforementioned individuals and those whose names escape me, were instrumental in creating for many of us an appreciation for not only the facts in the biological sciences but for the underlining intellectual and aesthetic beauty of Biology.  I suppose that sounds corny.

Advertisement from the Flat Hat, 1954One faculty member remains particularly vivid in my memory, Mr., and later Dr., John T. Wood.  I had the good fortune as a freshman to work with him on several of his projects.  A Master’s degree in Herpetology he had worked at the Field Museum (of Natural History) in Chicago.  As noted, a specialist in herpetology, salamanders were his passion.  In his home he had a huge oil painting of a red salamander on the wall above the fireplace.  I think it was a southern two lined salamander…. but I must confess, I had to look it up.  He was a Quaker. I normally would not refer to someone’s faith but during World War II, as a conscientious objector, he could have avoided any form of service.  Not Dr. Wood.  He volunteered to serve the military and civilian medical research facilities as a human guinea pig for testing the safety of newly developed vaccines and medications.  He was among the very few humans to first receive these experimental medications.  Wartime did not permit prolonged investigational step-wise procedures.  John told me that on several occasions he became literally “deathly ill” and was pretty much written off as to the likelihood of his surviving.  But surviving, right back he went as a volunteer member of the first human recipients for the next medication.  A patriotic and brave man.   It was working with him that enabled me to publish for the first time in a scientific journal.   I was co-author on two scientific publications with him. Frankly, I was the oarsman and he was the skipper.  “Our” article on the common garter snake, Thamnophis sirtali raised the possibility of a new regional subspecies of garter snake.  Naively, I transposed “probable” for “possible” and envisioned herpetological world fame at this “discovery.”  John quickly disabused me of that fantasy.  To my disappointment and not surprisingly, the herpetological world remained oblivious to this article.  As a consequence of this experience, I learned early that I need not run out and buy a ticket to Stockholm. 

One last anecdote about John.  One afternoon he came into the small lab where I was counting salamander eggs from individual egg masses. He abruptly announced that he was leaving the College.  I was stunned and disheartened by this unexpected pronouncement.  Asking him why he was leaving, he explained. His wife was a psychiatrist who worked with other psychiatrists at the nearby Eastern State (Psychiatric) Hospital.  He said her colleagues would come over to their home in the evening and chat about their patients and psychiatry in general.  John said he had not the faintest idea of much of what they discussed, and he was tired of feeling ignorant and left out.   He had applied to medical school and had been accepted.  He envisioned himself as a general practitioner in or close to a rural area where he would spend his free time traveling about collecting and studying salamanders.  In retrospect this sounds much like the physicians and clergy who were productive as amateur British biologists in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  But John would not be an amateur.  Several years later I learned that he finished med school and “had gone on.”  To what and where, I know not.

Advertisement from the Flat Hat, 1954Also in the class was a classmate and perhaps one of the two or three most amusing pranksters in our class, Walt Herkness.  He disguised his  intellect by a comedic sense of humor and innumerable shenanigans. Very sadly he died only a few years after graduation at a time when he was creating a highly successful business. One of his many escapades was to slip up to the attic of one of the women’s dorms accompanied by a fraternity brother and spend the night in the attic.  Asked why he did this, he responded that he could now say he had slept in the women’s dorm.  Vintage Walt. In our current era this is an accepted and commonplace collegiate activity not requiring hiding in the attic. To the collegian today, this is hardly worth mentioning… oh, to be a bit over a half century younger.  In honest respect for his venturous personality, I believe he was already on non-academic probation for another more dramatic prank.  He was risking expulsion if caught.

In my senior year at the College  I was taking a course in Microbiology  from Professor (“Ms.”) Blank.   When finals came around, we were taking the Microbiology final in the same lecture hall as were the undergrad Phys. Ed. majors taking a course taught by Prof. Blank specifically for Phys.  Ed. majors.   Just as Prof. Blank entered the room, one of the Phys. Ed majors, I forget who it was, got up with an arm full of at least one and possibly two dozen red roses. With a flourish, he presented them to a startled but obviously pleased Prof. Blank.  He gave a short oration extolling her virtues as a teacher and extending the thanks of her Phys Ed. class members.  Those in Micro class were pointedly excluded.   It was a tribute which would have done credit to Demosthenes.   My reaction after recovering from disbelief was to give them an unexpressed “ tip-of-the-hat,” albeit grudgingly. Walt Herkness, a classmate, was a couple of empty seats over from mine.  Since the exam had not as yet been passed out,  I muttered across to him “Damn, aced by the jocks.   Flowers!  It’s Machiavellian! There go our A’s., puff!.” 
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In fairness to Professor Blank, the flowers had no effect on anyone's grade.
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Each of us has numerous similar vignettes about the Department and its faculty.  I hope others will take the time to recount their experiences.

The Niche editors invite other alumni to share stories from the Biology Department--you can e-mail us at [[biology,biology@wm.edu]] or use the Send Us Your News  form.