In Memoriam: Edward Renton Leadbetter
The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution announces with great sorrow the death of Guest Investigator Edward Renton Leadbetter on April 25 in his sleep at his winter residence in Falmouth. He was 81.
Ed had just completed a week living exactly as he liked to and chose to, and as a microcosm of his entire adult life: in the research laboratory each and every day, thinking and doing science, conversing with colleagues of all ages; and at home, enjoying food, drink, music, books, and conversation with his spouse of 58 years, Gloria. He had spent the last 10 years as a guest investigator at WHOI (most recently with the research group of the gracious Dr. Virginia Edgcomb) after “retiring” from a 46-year career as a Professor of Microbiology. He had spent 18 years on the faculty at Amherst College, followed by 28 years at The University of Connecticut at Storrs. A summer resident of Woods Hole since 1971, his many interactions with the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) and WHOI stretched back some 55 years.
Ed was born on January 26, 1934, in the Appalachian village of Dixonville, PA, the son of a mine engineer and a schoolteacher. He spent his early years in other surrounding coal-mining hamlets of Indiana County, PA. After graduating from high school, he attended Franklin & Marshall (F&M) College in Lancaster, PA, where he received his bachelors degree in biology in 1955. After completing his degree at F&M, Ed initiated his pioneering studies on biological methane degradation, alkane oxidation, and co-metabolism in the laboratory of Jackson Foster at the University of Texas (UT) at Austin. It was during his first year in Texas that he met Gloria (Mydlinski), originally from Syracuse, NY. After completing his PhD at UT, they moved to Amherst, Mass., in the Fall of 1959, where the 25 year old, already with a shiny head, joined the biology faculty at Amherst College, later gaining tenure and rising to the rank of full professor and rotating department head. During the summer months throughout the 1960s, Ed also taught coursework at UC-Berkeley and UW-Seattle, as well directed a high school enrichment summer program in biochemistry at Loomis Chaffee School. As a curious side note, Ed was a member of the Screen Actors Guild, and played the bit part as "Mac the cab driver" in the TV movie "Silent Night, Lonely Night,"starring Lloyd Bridges and Shirley Jones, an otherwise unmemorable holiday feature filmed in Amherst in the Winter of 1968. In early 1978, Ed left Amherst College to become chair of the biological sciences group at UCONN-Storrs, an administrative position he held for five years before continuing to devote his professional efforts to the teaching and mentoring of graduate and undergraduate students until his retirement at the end of 2005. He then relocated to Cape Cod to reside year around.
It was during his early years at Amherst College that a long and enriching connection to Woods Hole was forged. Ed and Gloria visited a colleague in Woods Hole in the summer of 1960, and stayed at one of the “Do Re Me” houses (at the site of current Swope Building). The family would make periodic visits to Woods Hole for the next few years, but it was the long-term impact of a life-changing academic experience on the West Coast that ended up deepening the relationship with Woods Hole. For his first sabbatical, Ed and the family spent the academic year of 1962-1963 in Pacific Grove, CA, where he did research with the influential Dutch microbiologist, Cornelis “Kees” van Niel. He also participated in van Niel’s famous summer microbiology course at Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station on a picturesque point situated near to the “Cannery Row” made famous by Steinbeck. It was the last time that summer course was taught, as the scientific icon retired soon after. Suffice it to say, van Niel really stirred up the pot: his approach to a focused, disciplined, and artful love of teaching, research, friendship, and wine deeply influenced and changed Ed, an experience shared by so many of the preceding generation of microbiologists who had visited that small West Coast fishing village. One of those others impacted by the experience was the eminent marine microbiologist, Holger Jannasch, who had moved to Woods Hole in the early 1960s and whose rich legacies as a scientist and human being at WHOI, the MBL, and at Sea Education Association (SEA) are still enjoyed by many. Dismayed by the gap left open in the education of microbiologists by the retirement of van Niel, Jannasch was able to revive his version of that tradition under the masthead of the summer program in marine ecology at the MBL in 1971. He invited Ed to be as one of his co-instructors, who eagerly accepted that opportunity. Also that summer, after local real estate politics that were, not without later irony, alleviated by the much-appreciated efforts of the late microbiologist Harlyn Halvorsen (later, the MBL Director), Ed and Gloria purchased their home in Woods Hole. It was their first, as they were still living in Amherst College housing at the time. The family has enjoyed the house on Hyatt every summer since, and Ed taught at the MBL program (which has subsequently been called "Microbial Ecology," "Microbiology: Molecular Aspects of Cellular Diversity," and, since 1991, "Microbial Diversity") during its first seven summers, 1971-1977. One of many diverse outgrowths of his participation in the MBL program was a book series of three volumes, “Bacteria in Nature,” that he co-developed and co-edited in the 1980s with Barnard College microbiologist Jeanne S. Poindexter. For five summers of 1995-1999, Ed returned to the course and was thrilled to co-direct program with the late Abigail Salyers. The opportunity to introduce "The van Niel Approach" to new generations of microbiologists provided him with a great deal of fulfilling satisfaction. This program has, since it's 1971 inception, impacted more than 800 graduate and postdoctoral students from around the world, including many who have subsequently developed esteemed careers in research and mentoring. In 2013, the program gained "Milestones in Microbiology Site" status by the American Society for Microbiology.
During six decades of research, Ed enjoyed pursuing the secrets of the microbe and published on a number of topics: from biological hydrocarbon oxidation, to the ecology and ultrastructure of spore forming bacteria, to the enzymology of denitrification, to the utilization of novel electron donors by sulfur and non-sulfur anoxygenic phototrophic bacteria, to the elucidation of sulfonolipids as determinants of bacterial gliding motility, to the microbial metabolisms of sulfonic acids by microbes. In recent years his attentions had turned to ciliates and bacterial symbionts, and to revisiting long held interests in yeast diversity. But for most of his career, his fundamental interests lay in the so-called gliding bacteria, which "can move over solid surfaces but cannot swim through liquids." Ironically, Ed was never able to learn to swim or tread water, but in his later years grew comfortable enough to be able enjoy immersing himself in the ocean off of Nobska and Little Gansett Beaches in Woods Hole.
In other highlights of his career, Ed spent six-month sabbaticals at The University of Sevilla in Spain (1972); and The Biological Research Center in Szeged, Hungary (1985). In 1991, he served a year as a program manager at the National Science Foundation in Washington, DC. A Fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology, Ed was a member of his professional organization, the American Society for Microbiology (ASM), for 60 years. Twice an ASM lecturer, in 2014 he received the D. C. White Teaching and Mentoring Award from the society. Ed and his family enjoyed the opportunity for him to be able to receive his award and to publically present a seminar at ASM's national meeting in Boston in May 2014. He was filled with joy while greeting and receiving congratulations from the several hundred well-wishing microbiologists: it was truly a capstone experience in his long career and affiliation with the society.
The 1990s brought the arrival of the first of Ed's six grand children, and he shared many rich moments with them, especially during summers in Woods Hole, when many of them would stay at the home for extended visits, witnessing and sharing his daily joys and passions. Family and former students alike can attest that Ed loved classical and old time country music, and any and all foods representing the full breadth of ethnic cuisines. Influenced from his time in Spain, the family often shared a late summer afternoon glass of chilled, bone-dry sherry with either salted nuts or strong olives. His love of a special and unique wine called Moscato Amabile, introduced to him by "The Master" (Kees van Niel, his postdoctoral advisor), will remain in the hearts and memories of all who knew him. Anyone visiting the winery of Louis Martini in Napa Valley must remember to ask specifically for it, to keep it chilled as if it were fresh seafood and all life depended on it, and to share this "nectar of the gods" with as many assembled friends and loved ones as possible, at the first available opportunity. Missed will be Ed's quirky, idiosyncratic style, well typified by his love of Clark's shoes, his sagging white cotton socks, and his first choice in automobiles, the Peugeot (for many years, Ed and Gloria drove a long line of them, most often station wagons in white, even years after the formal departure of that French automaker from North American operations). Missed will be his whimsical demeanor, and his friendly, bellowing voice. And missed will be those gams he inherited from his mother, his baby blue eyes, and his epic smile. And so it goes: all good things do come to an end.
While Ed cultivated an almost monastic dedication to the study of bacteria (which he often simple called “the microbe”) with an energized, rare passion that never once waned over 60 years: it takes people to study microbes, and he loved all those around him in his professional and personal life even more deeply. To use his terminology, there were many wonderful "adjacent Leadbetters" who profoundly touched Ed and his family. The family thanks and acknowledges all those who had so enriched his life and for helping to create so many amazing family memories. Ed was pre-deceased in 2003 by his beloved granddaughter, Christina Prankus. He is survived by his wife Gloria, with whom he shared a symbiotic relationship for nearly 60 years; daughter Aletha Prankus and her husband Niel (and his deceased brother's children, Isabella and Jonathan), of Longmeadow, Mass.; son Garth and his spouse Stefanie Jacobs and their daughter Ilana of Denver, CO; daughter Briana Sitler and her spouse Chris and their two children Killian and Kayla, of Longmeadow, Mass.; son Jared and his daughters Chloe and Olivia, of Altadena, CA; and nephew John Leadbetter, and his wife Donna and family of Marquette, MI. And many, many, "adjacent Leadbetters." The plans are still evolving, but there will almost certainly be a memorial celebration in Woods Hole in this summer. In lieu of flowers, Gloria is asking that you please consider making donations in Ed's name to support students of the microbial diversity summer course at the MBL.
Information for this obituary was from Ed’s son.
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