Richard M. Eakin, a zoology professor who enthralled UC Berkeley students with costumed lectures, is dead at 89

By Robert Sanders, Public Affairs

BERKELEY-- Emeritus professor of zoology Richard Marshall Eakin, who for nearly 20 years dressed up as historic figures in biology to entertain and educate his students at the University of California, Berkeley, died Thursday, Nov. 25, at his home in Danville, Calif. He was 89.

Former chair of the zoology department at UC Berkeley and an expert on the fine structure of the eye, Eakin (pronounced ay'-kin) hit upon his gimmick one morning in the shower. Worried that his lectures were boring students and creating increased absenteeism, he decided, in his words, to "dress up and make up as some of the great biologists, and present their discoveries and thoughts in their own words."

With coaching from a retired drama professor and the help of a skilled makeup artist, he walked into class one day in 1970 dressed in the Elizabethan costume of William Harvey, the discoverer of the circulation of the blood. With the assistance of a cow's heart and tomato juice for blood, Eakin explained how Harvey, through experimentation and observation, proved that the heart was the pump that sent blood coursing through the body.

The class gave him a standing ovation, and for the next 17 years, well past his formal retirement in 1977, he continued to enthrall introductory zoology classes.

"There's a lot of ham in me," he once said. "Perhaps I am nothing more than a frustrated actor."

His theatrics made lasting impressions on his students, however, and drew standing room-only audiences that included faculty and staff as well as students. Among his characters were Charles Darwin, the father of evolution; Gregor Mendel, the discoverer of inheritance; William Beaumont, who explained the workings of the stomach; and Hans Spemann, a German embryologist and one of Eakin's mentors. He collected these lectures in a book, "Great Scientists Speak Again," and made a film of six of his lectures. His last lecture in 1988, which he delivered as French physician Louis Pasteur, drew a crowd of 350.

Over the course of more than 40 years of teaching, he won, in 1962, the campus's first Citation for Distinguished Teaching, and, in 1968, the Award for Outstanding Teaching given by the Associated Students of the University of California.

"He was a good, kindhearted man who developed a whole new dimension to the educational process by mimicking famous scientists," said Frank Pitelka, a long-time colleague and emeritus professor of zoology at UC Berkeley. "He was really remarkably effective."

As important as his magnetic teaching was the major role he played in strengthening UC Berkeley's zoology department.

"He built up the department in the 1950s and 1960s as the best zoology department in the country," said Oliver Pearson, one of the faculty members that Eakin hired who is now emeritus professor of zoology and emeritus director of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology. "Everyone admired and respected Eakin. He did a lot for the university."

Eakin also was elected president of the American Society of Zoologists in 1975 and was named president of the Western Society of Naturalists in 1949.

Born in Florence, Colo., on May 5, 1910, Eakin attended the University of Tulsa for two years before coming to UC Berkeley in 1929 as an undergraduate. He graduated with an AB in zoology in 1931 and a PhD in zoology in 1935.

He remained as an instructor in zoology until his appointment in 1940 as an assistant professor. He became a full professor in 1949. He served as chair of the Department of Zoology from 1942 to 1948, and again from 1953 to 1957. He was assistant dean of the College of Letters and Science from 1940 to 1943.

Eakin conducted research on the eyes of animals, in particular the so-called "third eye" of lizards, frogs and other animals. This organ looks like an eye that hasn't developed properly and eventually develops into the pineal gland. Using the relatively new technique of electron microscopy, he also studied the fine structure of light sensitive organs called photoreceptors. His research also included studies of amphibian embryology and transplants of animal tissue and organs.

He published more than 200 scientific papers and several books. A fellow of the California Academy of Sciences for 52 years, Eakin received a host of awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1953 and the Walker Prize from the Boston Museum of Science in 1976. Upon his retirement he received the Berkeley Citation, one of the campus's highest honors.

For more than 60 years, Eakin was a member of the First Congregational Church of Berkeley, where he sang in the choir and co-authored a history, published this year, of the 125-year-old church.

He is survived by his wife, Barbara (Nichols) Eakin of Danville; a son, David of Richmond, Calif.; a daughter, Dottie of College Station, Texas; and two stepdaughters, Janet Harris of Sebastopol, Calif., and Jeannie Lamb of Bozeman, Mont. His first wife, the Rev. Mary Mulford Eakin, died in 1980.

The family plans a private service. Memorial contributions may be sent to Save Mount Diablo, P.O. Box 5376, Walnut Creek, CA 94596; the California Academy of Sciences, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, CA 94118; or the San Francisco Symphony, Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco, CA 94102.


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