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Howard L. Sanders

The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution announces with great sorrow the death February 8, 2001, of Scientist Emeritus Howard L. Sanders of Woods Hole at the Royal Nursing and Alzheime’¹s Center in Falmouth after a long illness. He was 79.

Howard Lawrence Sanders was born March 17, 1921, in Newark, New Jersey, and attended schools there. During World War II, from 1942 to 1945, he served in the U.S. Army Signal Corps. After a brief enrollment at Rutgers University in 1946, he graduated on 1949 from the University of British Columbia with a bachelor’s degree in zoology. He enrolled in the first master’s degree program offered in oceanography at the University of Rhode Island (URI), studying under Donald Zinn and others, receiving his master¹s degree in biological oceanography from URI in 1951. He went on to study the benthic fauna of Long Island Sound and Buzzards Bay with G. Evelyn Hutchinson at Yale University, where he earned his doctorate in zoology in 1955.

As an undergraduate, he worked as a biological aide to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1948 in Bristol Bay, Alaska, collecting samples of yearling fish, tagging salmon and carrying out stream surveys. In 1949 he worked for the Service as a fisheries aide in Pensacola, Florida, conducting chemical analyses of seawater, growth studies of oysters, and initiating a taxonomic survey of the invertebrates and fish of Pensacola Bay.

His doctoral studies in the structure, interrelationships and diversity of animals living in the soft sediments led to his discovery of an unknown primitive crustacean belonging to a new subclass. Sanders named the animal Hutchinsoniella in honor of his Yale professor. The discovery changed the views of the evolution of the Crustacea and led to great evolutionary debate. Sanders maintained his interest in primitive crustacea over the years, describing a number of new families and species. His work came to the attention of Japan’s Emperor Hirohito, himself a crustacean expert, who expressed a desire to meet Sanders during a state visit to the United States in 1975. The two did meet in Sanders’ lab in Redfield Laboratory, where they viewed specimens and discussed their evolution.

Howard Sanders joined the staff at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in 1949, working as a casual research assistant from October 1949 to June 1951 while he worked toward his master¹s degree at URI. Shortly after completing his Ph.D. in 1955, WHOI Associate Director Alfred Redfield appointed him to the staff as a Research Associate in Marine Biology, working for Bostwick Ketchum. He was promoted to Associate Scientist in 1963 and to Senior Scientist in 1965. Sanders retired in 1986 and was named Scientist Emeritus that year.

Howard Sanders’ interest in the diversity of animals in the soft sediments moved from shallow waters to the deep sea. He attracted a team of young scientists, and together they devised new sampling techniques and began exploring in systematic fashion the abyssal basins in the Atlantic. They found that, although few in numbers, the animals of the abyss were among the most diverse in the sea. Sanders and his co-workers described hundreds of new species. These discoveries led to debate on the evolution of deep-sea fauna and how such great diversity could occur in such stable soft sediments, inquiry that led Sanders to develop the time/stability hypothesis to explain how it could happen.

Recognized as a world leader in marine benthic communities both in shallow water and in the deep sea, Howard Sanders was also recognized for his research in oil pollution biology. Sanders and his colleagues conducted the first detailed quantitative study of the biological effects of an oil spill when the barge Florida ran aground in Buzzards Bay off West Falmouth in 1969. This research serves as a baseline for long-term effects of oil in the environment and continues to be cited as a model for how such events should be studied.

“In ocean research the real breakthroughs often come through the interfaces,” Sanders said in a 1969 profile published in Woods Hole Notes, “when biology meets physics, and both are governed by chemistry. You just can¹t get away from the inter-disciplinary nature of oceanography.” Sanders believed scientists needed to make the results of their research known to policymakers and the public. “Knowledge and understanding are essential if we are to make wise decisions affecting the environment. Understanding will come from high-grade basic science. But the understanding won¹t penetrate the conference rooms of political and industrial leaders unless scientists take it there. Then those leaders will be able to make decisions based on scientific knowledge. The scientist has a big stake in these decisions. He has as much to gain, or lose, as anyone. “

Howard Sanders was the author or co-author of more than 60 scientific publications, and served on numerous national and international research panels and committees. He also served as an instructor at the Marine Biological Laboratory, as an Adjunct Professor of the Biological Sciences at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, and as an Associate in Invertebrate Zoology at Harvard University. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1983, was a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and was a member of numerous professional societies and organizations.

Howard Sanders is survived by his wife, Lillian Sanders, of Woods Hole, MA; two sons, Robert Sanders of Japan and Mark Sanders of Woodside, CA; two grandchildren, David and Sarah Sanders, of Japan; and two sisters, Leah Green of Michigan and Betty Deutsch of New York.

A memorial service will be held this summer. Donations in Howard Sanders’ memory may be made to the Alzheimer’s Association, P.O. Box 953, Barnstable, MA 02630.