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Stanley W. Watson

The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution announces with great sorrow the death of Scientist Emeritus Stanley W. Watson, President and owner of Associates of Cape Cod, February 1, 1995 at his home in Falmouth following a long illness. He was 74.

Stan Watson was born and brought up in Seattle, Washington, where he graduated from high school in 1938. He spent two years in Alaska working as a painter before entering the University of Washington in 1940. His undergraduate studies were interrupted by World War II. Following service in the Army Air Corps in the Pacific theater he returned to the University of Washington, graduated with a B.S. in Zoology in 1949, and began his graduate studies in microbiology. He conducted part of his master’s degree research at the University’s Friday Harbor Laboratory, where he met Dr. Alfred Redfield who arranged a year’s appointment as a Research Fellow at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in 1951. After a brief period with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Seattle, he undertook his doctoral studies at the University of Wisconsin. He returned to WHOI as a Research Associate in 1957, was promoted to Associate Scientist in 1963, Senior Scientist in 1970, and Scientist Emeritus in 1986.

Stan Watson had two careers—one as a microbiologist and another as a business man in biotechnology. His career in microbiology encompassed the study of such diverse areas as viral diseases in salmon, the biology and ecology of marine slime molds, marine and freshwater nitrifying bacteria, marine cyanobacteria, and the development of the horseshoe crab blood-clotting system to measure bacterial biomass in seawater. The latter served as the basis for his second career as the head of his very successful marine biotechnology firm, Associates of Cape Cod, a company that he built from a cottage industry into a major supplier to the pharmaceutical industry throughout the world.

Stan’s colleagues note two traits that served him well as a scientist. He always approached scientific problems with an intuitive sense that was not prejudiced by preconceived notions of how things ought to work and was always quick to grasp the long-range implications of his scientific observations. The diverse groups of microorganisms that he worked with during his career were chosen for study following the dictum, best expressed in his own words, “never work with organisms that anyone else can grow!”

He began by studying Labyrinthula minuta, an obscure marine slime mold, that he was able to grow on an exotic cocktail of seawater, horse serum and antibiotics. These lower fungi were the focus of his M.S. studies, conducted with Erling Ordal at the University of Washington, Seattle, and his Ph.D. work with Kenneth Raper at the University of Wisconsin. He is still considered a world’s authority on these organisms though his last publication on them was 40 years ago.

Much of Stan Watson’s career was spent studying nitrifying bacteria and documenting their importance in the marine nitrogen cycle. In addition to describing four new genera of nitrifiers, he published more than 25 papers on their growth and purification, systematics, morphology and ultrastructure, physiology and ecology. His extensive collection of pure cultures is the world’s largest repository of nitrifiers and serves as source material for a new generation of biologists studying the molecular biology and ecology of this unique group of bacteria.

Stan was always an avid and skilled microscopist who employed both light and electron microscopy in much of his research. As happens to many scientists, his bench skills diminished with seniority. On cruises in recent years he had been relegated to the chief scientist’s cabin to count bacteria. This had the advantage of placing his laboratory in close proximity to his bunk where he was often seen snoozing while claiming to suffer from severe insomnia at sea. In 1977, during a cruise in the Arabian Sea, he noticed small, extremely numerous orange fluorescing cells in surface samples. This observation led to the discovery of photosynthetic picoplankton that are now recognized as major primary producers in the world’s oceans. The biology and ecology of these small cyanobacteria are currently being studied in many laboratories throughout the world.

In the mid-1970s Stan Watson was instrumental in demonstrating the hitherto unappreciated importance of bacteria in the marine food webs. His 1977 paper “Determination of bacterial number and biomass in the marine environment”, authored with Tom Novitsky, Helen Quinby and Frederica Valois, is one of the most cited papers in modern marine microbial ecology. As part of these studies he utilized an extract from the blood of the horseshoe crab, Limulus amebocyte lysate (LAL), to measure bacterial biomass in seawater. This work led into his second career as a marine biotechnologist and businessman.

Finding that his early LAL preparations were not sensitive enough, he initiated a “short” research effort to improve the sensitivity of LAL with his postdoctoral student, James Sullivan. They developed and patented an extraction procedure that, with other refinements, significantly improved the reagent. As word of their improved reagent spread, they began to receive requests for samples from major pharmaceutical companies. Realizing the potential of LAL, Stan Watson decided it was time to form a production company. His initial efforts were aimed at establishing a joint company with WHOI and/or the MBL. However, this idea proved to be ahead of its time and the proposal was rejected by both institutions for fear of jeopardizing their non-profit status. Consequently, having purchased the extraction patent from WHOI, Associates of Cape Cod was founded in 1974. In 1977, the same year that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration granted Associates of Cape Cod the first license to manufacture LAL, the company moved to Bennett’s Plumbing and Heating building on Rose Morin Drive. It very rapidly outgrew this facility and in 1983 moved to the present site on Main Street. Further expansion occurred in 1989 with the addition of a new research and production wing. Associates of Cape Cod currently has a combined research and production staff of forty, including five Ph.D.’s. It is the world’s leading producer of materials used for detecting bacterial endotoxins.

Throughout his 44-year affiliation with Woods Hole, Stan Watson was deeply committed to the scientific community and became one of its most generous benefactors. In addition to significant annual gifts that supported the work of colleagues at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, he quietly arranged to provide funding for scientists and research at WHOI by establishing two endowed funds: The Stanley W. Watson Chair for Excellence in Oceanography, awarded to members of the Senior Scientific Staff and The Stanley W. Watson Director’s Discretionary Fund. StanWatson also supported the Marine Biological Laboratory, the MBL/WHOI Library, and the Falmouth Hospital Foundation. He provided a scholarship for a graduate of Falmouth High School and several prizes for local science fairs. He was motivated to assist those around him, rather than to attain recognition for his philanthropy.

In recognition of his accomplishments as a scientist, Stanley Watson was elected a member of the Marine Biological Laboratory Corporation in 1964 and served as a Trustee of the MBL from 1985-1991. In 1974 he traveled throughout the United States as a Foundation for Microbiology Lecturer. He was an Honorary Trustee of WHOI from 1988 until his death, and in 1992 was honored with the Cecil Green Award, presented by the WHOI Associates for outstanding contributions to oceanographic research.

He is survived by his wife, Margaret, of Falmouth; a brother, Reverend Harry S. Watson of Issaquah, Washington; a sister, Betty E. Borg of Falmouth; and numerous nieces and nephews.

A memorial service will be held February 19 at 2 p.m. at the Marine Biological Laboratory’s Swope Center, Meigs Room, in Woods Hole. The family requests that donations in remembrance of Stanley Watson be made to the Falmouth Hospital Foundation or Hospice of Cape Cod.