Celebrating 100 Years
David Leo Pawson: Expert in Echinoderms, Explorer of the Ocean Depths
Dr. David Pawson is an expert on echinoderms—sea cucumbers, sea urchins, and sea stars. He grew up in Napier, a city on the east coast of the North Island of New Zealand, where early on he developed an interest in marine life. He attended Victoria University in Wellington, which had a strong program in marine biology at that time, and stayed to pursue doctoral research under H. Barraclough Fell, an authority on sea urchins and starfish. Pawson came to the United States at the same time as his mentor. When Professor Fell was invited by Harvard University to join their faculty, he recommended Pawson to the Smithsonian Institution, which was then seeking a scientist specializing in invertebrate zoology. Dr. Pawson joined the staff of the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) as Associate Curator and Supervisor of Echinoderms in 1964—an exciting time of growth at the Smithsonian.
Pawson first became interested in the New Zealand sea cucumbers, or holothurians, as a student, and they became the topic of the thesis for his Master of Science degree; for his doctoral dissertation, he broadened the scope of his research to include sea urchins. Deep-sea echinoderms held particular interest, for so little was known about their role in the general economy of the deep sea, despite the fact they are the dominant organisms on vast areas of the seafloor. Prior to the development of sea-bottom photography and deep-sea submersibles, it was difficult for scientists to learn much about the behavior and distribution of these echinoderms. Pawson was part of a group of scientists who took advantage of these new technologies to gain a much clearer picture of life at the bottom of the ocean. Over the course of his career at the Smithsonian, during which time he has published over 150 papers, he has traveled widely, researching the systematic biology and ecology of echinoderms in Antarctica, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, the Galapagos Islands, the Caribbean, and the east and west coasts of the United States. He has participated in over 100 dives in deep-sea submersibles such as the Alvin and the Johnson-Sea-Link.
Dr. David Pawson talks about what it is like to be on a dive in one of the deep-sea submersibles.
In the 1980s Pawson was a member of a team of four scientists who made more than 150 submersible dives off Florida and in the Caribbean, to study the echinoderms. They discovered about 200 species of these beautiful animals, about thirty percent of which were new to science. The team has published many papers describing these animals and their lifestyles, and they continue to conduct laboratory studies of the specimens they videotaped, photographed, and collected. Perhaps the most astonishing dive was made near Nassau in the Bahamas, where the team found about fifty automobiles piled up on the seafloor! These old cars had been transported offshore on a barge and then pushed into the ocean; they inadvertently created an effective artificial reef, and they were covered in animals—sponges, deep-sea corals, sea whips, and more. More recently, Pawson has been conducting research on deep-sea sea cucumbers from the northern Pacific and the western Atlantic.
Dr. Pawson has also dedicated much of his time to teaching and mentoring. He is a faculty member at Harvard University and The American University, and has served as an advisor to many research fellows at the Museum. In 1995-96 he was Acting Director of the Museum, and from 1996-98, Associate Director for Science.
Pawson is also interested in the history of marine biology and has devoted much time to studying the life and work of Austin Hobart Clark. Clark was a renowned scientist and curator of echinoderms at the NMNH from 1908 to 1950. As a young man in 1906, he served as a naturalist on the well-known research ship Albatross during its expedition to Japan. About three years ago, Pawson was instrumental in obtaining for the Smithsonian a large collection of Austin Clark’s personal and scientific papers; this new addition doubled the Institution’s archival holdings of Austin Clark papers. Pawson and his wife Doris J. Pawson are currently writing a scientific biography of Clark; they are also editing a volume of letters that he wrote to his wife from the Albatross; and they worked with the Smithsonian Channel on a 2009 documentary about Clark and the Albatross.
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