Austin Williams, 1919-1999: a class act in the field of systematics
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About 12,000 years ago in the fertile crescent embracing the valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, hunter-gathering tribes discovered that seeds harvested in one year could be saved and planted the next year to produce food on a chosen parcel of land. This “birth of agriculture” enabled, nay created, villages. The process probably happened at many places and at many times on this planet, but in this region of the Middle East, it helped Mesopotamia to become a cradle for civilization.
Three great empires arose here, beginning about 5,500 years ago. They competed with and succeeded each other until about 2500 years ago — or 536 B.C.
Sumer, the first of these, was ruled by King Gilgamesh about 4600 years ago. According to legend, he sought to obtain the immortality possessed by a still earlier king, Utnapishtim. His stories, passed down through the generations, became the “Gilgamesh Epic.” We have these stories today because the Sumerians invented a cuneiform script, which was formed by pressing characters into moist clay. Once dried in the desert climate, these lasted for millennia. The Sumerians had invented writing and the world was forever changed.
Sumerian society, and those that came after, marched across Mesopotamia, scourging the land through war, stripping it of natural vegetation and abusing its water resources. It is estimated that 21,000 of the region’s 35,000 square miles could have been irrigated and that the zenith population might have been 17 million to 25 million.
The land eventually failed to support their demands. In modern times, one can find such blighted landscapes in war-torn Iran and Iraq. W.C. Lowdermilk, a former assistant chief of the U.S. Soil and Conservation Service, wrote in 1953 about one of the 100 dead cities of Syria, where 3 to 6 feet of soil had been eroded from the landscape. “This city,” he wrote, “will remain dead because the land around it can no longer support a city.”
The Mesopotamians, be they Sumerian, Babylonian or Assyrian, used their writing skill to do more than preserve legends. King Hammurabi of Babylon, 3,700 years ago, wrote the first known set of laws, a code that still survives. They also made inventories of plants, animals and minerals, perhaps reflecting concern for sacred, interesting or useful organisms stressed by their burgeoning society. These are the first “nature guides” or “taxonomic works” known.
Taxonomy, or systematics, is the science of accurately describing and formally naming organisms that inhabit this earth. It is a relatively old science, practiced not only by the Mesopotamians but also by the Greeks and Romans. It survived the Middle Ages under the stewardship of monks and in the herbals by which humankind sought to cure its ills.
Although the practice of using Latin to name genus and species, known as binomial nomenclature, goes back to at least the 17th century, the refined system upon which modern taxonomy rests is based upon that of the Swede Carolus Linnaeus 1708-1778. We use it for plants, fungi, animals and — once they were discovered — bacteria.
Austin B. Williams was born in 1919 in Plattsburg, MO. As an undergrad at McPherson College in Kansas, he earned a 20-hour minor in education to enable him to get some kind of a job after graduating during the post-Depression. He taught biology and general science in southwest Kansas for $1,800 a year. While things cost less then, $1,800 could only be stretched so far. Williams moved to a remote site in West Kansas, with an annual salary of $2,100. The premium existed, he said, “because nobody wanted to go there.”
At the end of World War II, Williams entered graduate school at the University of Kansas, where he worked under Dr. Byron Leonard. Leonard was interested in crayfish, the lobsterlike freshwater decapod crustaceans that are popular diet items in some areas, but surprising discoveries to pokers-about in Appalachian streams here on the East Coast.
Leonard, who was struggling with an old, incomplete and poorly conserved collection at Kansas, suggested that a good master’s thesis for Williams would be to work up the taxonomy of these imperfectly known Ozark Mountains crustaceans.
Williams and Leonard became field partners in what was to develop into a five-year project. Decapod crustaceans — shellfish with 10 legs — would become Williams’ life work and include blue crabs and the little grass shrimp fishermen use as bait.
Williams was becoming a superb scientist, and his mentor recommended that he accelerate his work toward a Ph.D. To properly practice taxonomy, Williams needed access to better reference collections than were available at Kansas to assure that each species was properly identified. Although one can work from published literature, to do the best taxonomy, it is necessary to have access to the original monographs, collections and type specimens. Type specimens are the original, preserved animals collected decades, or even centuries, earlier. They should also be archived and curated (cared for) in a proper storage facility.
At that time, the best specimens were available at Harvard University or the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., which is part of the Smithsonian Institution. This latter contact was to enrich Williams during his entire professional life.
The Ph.D. program at the University of Kansas required that one spend the summer at a marine station. Williams chose the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, MA. There he met Waldo Smith, the “Grand Old Man” of crustacean biology, who would become another mentor. Smith, Williams said, lost his son in World War II. This loss left a hole in his life that inspired him to help young biologists with their careers.
When Williams completed his Ph.D. in 1951, there were no jobs for Ph.D crustacean researchers. But there was a job in Beaufort, NC for a “shrimp investigator.” A job was a job. This was the time of the “old boy network” and Waldo Smith contacted Beaufort’s Bill Ellison. Williams was hired sight unseen, on the basis of a letter he wrote at Smith’s suggestion.
In the postwar economy, with hundreds of thousands of veterans looking for work, there had been great interest in first rejuvenating and then developing the nation’s fisheries. Williams came to this job unblemished by politics, and without prejudices for or against local interests, which allowed him to pursue knowledge on the job, rather than agendas.
Williams quickly found that very little was known about the life history of the three top commercial shrimp species. The spawning patterns, and even the juvenile stages, were poorly understood.
The only prior work on North Carolina’s shrimp was published in 1918 by William Perry Hay, who had taught high school in the District of Columbia. Hays’ taking up the work started earlier by scientist Clarence Shore was an avocation.
Williams had a pretty clean slate upon which to sketch his career. His research described, for the first time, the migratory patterns and larval stages of these animals, crucial information for the fishery. All this was done with a virtually zero budget, and with none of the research equipment taken for granted in modern laboratories. After that job, he went to work at the University of Illinois for about seven years before returning to the University of North Carolina.
Gaps in the knowledge about marine life were not unique to the North Carolina shrimp fishery. His growing expertise led Williams to eventually join the National Marine Fisheries Service, where he would work with laboratories up and down the Atlantic Seaboard. Williams, fully acknowledging the contributions of Marvin Wass at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and of Melbourne Carriker’s Wood’s Hole monographs on “Flora and Fauna of the East Coast,” was soon working around the world. He authored 115 articles, many in Chesapeake Science, forerunner of today’s respected Estuaries.
The heart of Williams’ career occurred after 1971 at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, where he did his most widely acknowledged work. Though many colleagues associate him with the Smithsonian, he was still an employee of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service. His 1965 work on the “Marine Decapod Crustaceans of the Carolinas” was acclaimed but quickly out of date. In 1984, the Smithsonian published a still broader work, considered by many taxonomists to be his magnum opus: “Shrimps, Lobsters and Crabs of the Atlantic Coast of Eastern United States, Maine to Florida.”
But even this work is incomplete Williams said, noting that as much as 30 percent of the material sent to him for taxonomic help from sources worldwide is either unresolved, wholly new to him or not part of the National Museum collections. Nor is it in the literature for others farther afield to access.
Many of these are species new to science, with unknown roles in the world’s ecosystems. All are components of what we call, and value, as “biodiversity.” These are the small cogs that make the great wheels of ecosystem productivity, stability, resilience and fisheries commerce mesh and revolve to our human benefit. Williams knew this, and reveled in the excitement of unraveling the mysteries. In 1997, he received the Excellence in Research Award from the Crustacean Society.
Williams, from the early days after graduate school, had been a member — one of the earliest — of the Atlantic Estuarine Research Society. He even served as the group’s president in 1960. The society celebrated its 50th inaugural in March 1998, at Beaufort, NC where it was founded. Many of the original members and those with longest tenure, including Williams, were invited to speak about their careers and prospects for the future of their science. He argued that systematics was one of the basic disciplines, still vital in today’s environment. “Gold,” he said, “is where you find it.” Prophetically, there is a Chinese proverb, that says: An ounce of gold cannot buy an ounce of time.
Williams last words in his retrospective address were: “Well, enough of this. I’m going to look to the future!”
Gilgamesh had sought immortality, and was challenged by Utnapishtim to first stay awake six days and seven nights. He failed, but was then told by Utnapishtim of an herb called “The old man shall be made young.” Gilgamesh searched for, and found, this plant but it was carried away by a serpent and he was forced to concede that he, too, must resign himself to being mortal.
Williams’s colleagues were saddened to learn that he had been diagnosed with an incurable cancer. His personal approach to this event was to re-evaluate his work and to focus on what he believed to be the most important objectives, something we should all stop, right now, and do for ourselves.
With very little money — shades of his youth — Williams struggled to complete the National Museum’s library and collections, making them available electronically, without the delays and cumbersomeness of paper publication, including that 30 percent which had not yet made it into the formal literature. Time was important to Williams; it is important for all of us answering urgent questions about the ecosystems we are so severely stressing.
His work will be a resource for federal and state natural resource agencies, scientists, managers and contractors dealing with environmental impacts along our coasts for decades to come.
Having carried this work forward almost two more years, Austin Williams died Oct. 27 at his home at the age of 80, thus ending a career of more than half a century.
His legacy to science is not only in his scholarly works, which are on the working bookshelves of invertebrate taxonomists all over the world, but in the thousands of women and men who continue to discover, describe and defend the myriad life forms which enrich our planet.
- Mesopotamia: The Mighty Kings, 1995, the Editors of Time-Life, Time-Life Books
- Shrimps, Lobsters and Crabs of the Atlantic Coast, 1984. Austin B. Williams, Smithsonian Institution
- Atlantic Estuarine Research Society, Spring, 1998 50th Year, a videocassette available for $10 from AERS by e-mail from Dr. Linda Blum, President: “firstname.lastname@example.org”
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