Dr. Willard A. Van Engel, a pioneer in blue crab research and professor emeritus, of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science died Dec. 25. He was 94.
Van Engel, known as "Van," laid the foundation of blue crab research in the Chesapeake Bay during the 1940s and was among those who created VIMS, one of the region's premier research organizations.
Born in 1915, Van Engel was a native of Milwaukee, WI. He received his bachelor's and master's degrees in the late 1930s from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
In 1946, Van Engel attended a fisheries meeting in St. Louis, where the director of the Virginia Fisheries Laboratory offered him a job. Van Engel accepted.
At a time when calculations were done with slide rules and adding machines, Van Engel and his colleagues were on the cutting edge of research in Chesapeake Bay. His early papers on the blue crab fishery formed the fundamental nucleus of work in the field.
Van Engel also foresaw the need for a fisheries survey for the blue crab. His efforts created the longest ongoing data set for the blue crab, or any other Portunid (swimming) crab worldwide.
His varied research interests included many pioneering areas now taken for granted, such as the relationship between recruitment dynamics and environmental parameters.
Throughout his career, Van Engel maintained key relationships with the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, the seafood industry and watermen.
William W. Warner, the late author of "Beautiful Swimmers," once called Van Engel "the complete estuaries biologist, as much at home in theoretical discussions with his scientist colleagues as he is in meeting with watermen throughout the Bay."
In the late 1940s, Van Engel and his colleagues helped to shape the newly founded VIMS into the diverse academic community it has become today. In 1947, he predicted the need for a centralized archive of scientific papers and reports, and founded the VIMS Library.
At the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in 1948, Van Engel and others, who at the time called themselves the "Brackish Boys," created what later became known as the Atlantic Estuarine Research Society.
On retirement from VIMS in 1985 at the age of 70, Van Engel was the longest serving employee at almost 39 years. A year later, he created a fellowship to support graduate student research on crustaceans.
In recent years, Van Engel received two significant recognitions. In 2003, VIMS presented Van Engel with its inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award for outstanding academic and scientific research contributions and continued support to VIMS. In 2006, the College of William and Mary presented him an honorary doctorate of science. After retirement he enjoyed riding his horses, spending time with his friends and was an active member of the Gloucester Point Rotary Club.
John Edward Olney, head of the anadromous fish research program, was an expert on American shad as well as identifying fish in their larval stages.
John Edward Olney, Sr., a leading shad researcher and professor at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, died on Jan. 11, after a year-long battle with cancer. He was 62.
Olney headed the anadromous fish research program at VIMS and was a well-known expert on the biology and conservation of American shad. Along with his students and collaborators, he published 25 papers on American shad and was principal adviser to the Virginia Marine Resources Commission and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission on decisions related to shad management in Virginia. Early in the discussions on the Mattaponi River-King William Reservoir issue, he warned of the project's potential impacts to shad reproduction.
Olney was also a prominent expert in the identification of young stages of fish. His research focused on the development, anatomy and evolution of two groups of fishes in particular, the oarfish and pearlfish. The taxonomic classifications that resulted from his research on these fishes are widely used in the field of ichthyology.
Olney was first employed at VIMS in 1972 and joined the faculty as an instructor in 1979. He was a popular and respected teacher and adviser, serving as major professor and confidant to 22 graduate students.
In recent years, Olney teamed with Ed Houde of the University of Maryland to teach a unique course, The Early Life History of Marine Fishes. He built a collection representing the larvae of 145 fish families and used it to show students the remarkably diverse specializations that larval fish need to thrive. The collection, lecture notes and course guide are an important part of his legacy.
Olney's service to VIMS included appointments to the Academic Affairs, Planning and Resources, and Executive committees of the William & Mary Faculty Assembly. Within the School of Marine Science, he chaired both the Academic Council and Educational Policy Committee, and was a member of the Academic Status and Degrees, Library Advisory, and Admissions committees. He also chaired the Department of Fisheries Science from 2006-09.
Olney often shared his culinary talents with friends, family and colleagues. For many years, he cooked for VIMS students at their fall fund-raiser, as well as for the faculty at their annual seafood fest. In the spring, he hunted morel mushrooms in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains with friends at his side, a ritual that he practiced for more than two decades.
A celebration of Olney's life will be scheduled in the spring of 2010 at VIMS.
Memorial gifts may be made to the VIMS Foundation for the benefit of the John Edward Olney Sr. Memorial Endowment, which supports research and travel by VIMS graduate students in ichthyology and fisheries science. Gifts may be sent c/o VIMS, P.O. Box 1346, Rte. 1208 Greate Road, Gloucester Point, VA 23062.