Spotlight: Dave Pawson
Written by Dave Pawson
Dave Pawson was born in Napier, New Zealand, in 1938 (AD, not BC), attended parochial schools, then went to Victoria University (VUW) in Wellington, the capital city, where he completed an M.Sc. degree in 1961, and a Ph.D. in 1963. For his dissertations, he studied echinoderms (sea stars, sea urchins and their relatives) of the Southern Oceans. At that time, the VUW Zoology Department was conducting pioneering deep-sea research, mostly in Cook Strait near Wellington. Dave participated in several of the expeditions, where bizarre animals were collected from great depths. VUW would rent a smelly fishing trawler for a weekend, and researchers would spend from Friday night to Sunday night at sea, bouncing around in the always rough seas, and losing their lunches…
In 1963 he became a tenured Associate Professor of Zoology at VUW, and he was presumably set for life. But then, late in 1963, he was offered a job as a curator at NMNH, which he was absolutely delighted to accept. The sole cause for his initial reluctance to leave New Zealand was the fact that Dave was a fanatical player of the game of cricket, which he played for his university. Before he could be hired by the US Government as a non-citizen of the USA, a bill had to be passed in the US Congress approving the hire. Fortunately, that happened, and Dave joined the Smithsonian in May, 1964, as a so-called “rare bird” Federal appointee. According to the law at that time, he had to be dismissed and rehired every year (this was an annual source of anxiety…would the bureaucracy do its job on time? It did!) until he became a US citizen in 1970.
Dave was instantly, and forever, entranced by the Smithsonian and the NMNH, by its huge collections of echinoderms, and by its wonderful, friendly, and dedicated staff. Since 1964, he has studied echinoderms in many parts of the world, from Antarctica to the Galapagos Islands, from the shore to great depths, using snorkel and mask, SCUBA, oceanographic ships and, mostly, little submarines, mainly Alvin and Johnson-Sea-Link, in which he has made more than 100 dives to depths in excess of two miles. He has published more than 200 papers on his weird animals, and also on other marine animal groups, including rotifers, kinorhynchs, and gastrotrichs. He has collaborated with many fellow scientists around the world, and he has sponsored more than 20 pre- and post-doctoral fellows at the NMNH.
As playing cricket was out of the question here in the US (although he was surprised to get a call many years ago from the Embassy of Jamaica, asking if he would like to join a West Indies team which played locally around Washington DC), Dave became instead a keen but untalented golfer. Before joining a golf club in 1974, he would sneak out at lunchtime with NMNH colleagues, such as Roger Cressey, Gene Jarosewich, Marty Buzas, and others, and play 9 holes at East Potomac Park.
Dave’s first wife Mary passed away in 2007; they had two children. In 2008 Dave and Doris Vance were married, and their blended family comprises 6 children, 11 grandchildren, and 9 great-grandchildren. Doris Jones Pawson, aged 83, passed away suddenly on January 5, 2021. Doris and Dave collaborated in the study of echinoderms (sea stars and their relatives) and co-authored more than a dozen publications on (mainly) deep-sea animals, and two papers on the life in science of great Smithsonian scientist Austin H. Clark (1880-1954). She was a key member of the Invertebrate Zoology community for many years, a highly valued collaborator, and dearly loved by all in the department.
Dave has held several positions in the NMNH. He was IZ Department Chair from 1970-75, and on several subsequent occasions, then Acting Director of the museum in 1995-6, and Associate Director for Science in 1996-1999. In the early 1970’s he held a three-year joint appointment with the National Science Foundation. But his always much-preferred position was Curator of Echinoderms – for just on 50 years.
In the pre-internet days, communication with colleagues was via airmail letters, an often tedious process. To help in communication, Dave founded the Echinoderm Newsletter, which was distributed to 800 scientists world-wide for about 20 years, until it was supplanted by the internet. He also founded the International Echinoderm Conferences (IEC), the first of which was held at NMNH in 1972. Since then, IEC’s have been held every three years, in many countries around the world. The 17th IEC, scheduled for next year in Tenerife, Spain, has been postponed until 2024 because of Covid-19. “Spinoff” meetings, including North American, European, and Latin American Echinoderm Conferences are held in off-years.
Much of Dave’s time has been spent studying the strange echinoderms called sea cucumbers. These amazing animals flourish in the deep sea, where they may comprise more than 95% of the total weight of animals on the deep-sea floor. They are usually very fragile, so that, when they’re preserved in alcohol, they look like ugly jello-like blobs. But, in life, they’re very beautiful and diverse!
In addition to doing research, Dave has been very active in “spreading the word” about life in the oceans, the history of marine research, and related topics. He has taught courses and served on the faculty of Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Yale, and The American Universities, and he has presented hundreds of public lectures around the USA, most sponsored by the Smithsonian Associates, along with some programs that were produced by the Smithsonian TV Channel.
These days, partly due to COVID-19 and reduced access to NMNH’s collections, Dave’s research has slowed down considerably, and what may be his final substantial publication, on the echinoderms of Bermuda, is nearing completion. He is frequently asked to review manuscripts on echinoderms, and on deep-sea biology, that have been submitted for publication in scientific journals. He is constantly astonished and excited by the wonderful advances that have been made in recent years in our knowledge of the ocean and its denizens, and he is constantly aware that, despite what we know today, we still have a LOT to learn!