Encyclopedia Brunoniana

Wilson, James Walter

J(ames) Walter Wilson (1896-1969), professor of biology, was born in Manchester, New Hampshire, on June 17, 1896. In his senior year in high school, he wrote an essay entitled “My Cherished Ambition,” which began, “For several years my cherished ambition has been to own a well equipped laboratory, and to have the knowledge, money, and time necessary to run it. ... I should have a castle-like building on the highest point of some remote island in the tropical Pacific. This would be laid out as follows: one half of the first floor would be a well lighted, well ventilated, and roomy laboratory, equipped with the most modern biological, chemical, and physical apparatus; the other would contain a large library of all the scientific reference books procurable; the second floor, a museum containing anthropological curios and preserved biological specimens; and on the roof, an observatory containing the most modern astronomical apparatus ...” He entered Brown in 1914 (he liked to point out that this was the same year that Arnold Laboratory was being built) and studied biology under Professor Albert D. Mead. He graduated in 1918, spent a year in the army, and returned to Brown as a graduate student in biochemistry under Professor Philip H. Mitchell. His dissertation topic for his Ph.D. degree in 1921 was Contributions to the Biochemistry of Vitamin A. The same year he was appointed instructor in biology for one year to teach Professor Herbert E. Walter’s courses while Walter was on leave. He ended up staying for forty years. He introduced a new course called “experimental morphogenesis,” and did research on regeneration in flatworms. By 1936 he was recognized for developing a technique in kidney research, a perfusion apparatus which circulated synthetic blood through rabbit kidneys.

In 1945 he became chairman of the Department of Biology and Frank L. Day Professor of Biology. He served as chairman until 1960, at which time President Keeney noted that Wilson “provided a climate which made it possible for members of the Biology Department to flourish intellectually and personally, and they have achieved a national reputation for their research and their teaching.” His research interests had turned to cytology and the study of cancer in animal tissues. On Wilson’s 62nd birthday in 1958 about forty of his former graduate students gathered to honor him with a Seminar on the Biology of the Cell and a Symposium on Training Biologists. Wilson was a member of the U.S. Public Health Services National Advisory Council on Health Research Facilities, a member of the National Advisory Cancer Council, and a consultant to the Sloan Kettering Institute for Cancer Research. He was also a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and president of the American Society of Zoologists and the Histochemical Society. President John F. Kennedy invited him to speak at the President’s Conference on Heart Disease and Cancer in 1961. He retired in 1966. He died on May 11, 1969 in Providence. At the time of his death he was writing a history of the life sciences at Brown University. Professor Elizabeth H. Leduc, who worked with Wilson for many years, wrote of him:

“J. Walter Wilson never wasted a second. When a severe bout of tuberculosis hospitalized him for two years (1927 to 1929), he developed an interest in the history of science and subsequently published papers dealing with the history of biology and biologists in colonial New England. He was an accomplished chess player and a philatelist of note. He built puzzles with great precision. He loved music. His entire house, cellar to attic, was wired to his ‘medium-fi’ equipment so that he could listen to his complete collection of the classics anywhere. He tended his flower garden lovingly. Late in life he revived his skill as “champeen” top spinner to illustrate electron spin resonance to a class, and this led him to collect tops from all parts of the world.”