Don Wayne Fawcett, 1917–2009


  • Susumu Ito,

  • Elio Raviola

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Don Fawcett, anatomist and one of the founders of cell biology, passed away at home on May 7, 2009. He was 92. Don Fawcett was born in Iowa where his father raised sheep and cattle, moved to Boston at a young age where he was a student of the Boston Latin School, the oldest high school in the country, founded in 1635. He was admitted to Harvard College in 1934 and to Harvard Medical School in 1938, where he did research under George B. Wislocki, then the chairman of the Department of Anatomy. He received his MD in 1942 and, as an intern in Surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital he was on duty in the emergency ward when 300 people were severely burned in a fire at the Coconut Grove nightclub in Boston.

In 1943 he was commissioned as a captain in the U.S. Army Medical Corps and served as a surgeon in an Anti Aircraft Battalion in the European Theater in World War II. Upon his return from the war, he joined as an instructor the Department of Anatomy at Harvard Medical School. He rapidly moved up the academic ladder at Harvard and in 1955 he assumed the position of chairman of the Department of Anatomy at Cornell Medical School in New York. He returned to the Department of Anatomy at Harvard Medical School four years later as the Hersey Professor of Anatomy and chairman. In 1975, he relinquished his chairmanship and become the Senior Associate Dean for Preclinical Sciences. He missed doing research, so he left Harvard Medical School in 1977 and accepted a position as senior research scientist and director of electron microscopy at the International Laboratory for Research in Animal Diseases (ILRAD) in Nairobi. After 5 years in Kenya, he moved to Montana in 1988, where he lived for the remainder of his life.

During his medical school student days, Don Fawcett’s first experience with the microscope stimulated his interest in morphological studies. As an instructor in Anatomy, he became aware of the emerging field of electron microscopy that seemed to offer great promise to expand the knowledge of the structure of cells and tissues. He learned the new technique in 1954 with Keith Porter at the Rockefeller Institute in New York where he described for the first time cilia and sperm flagella. This was followed by a study of the fine structure of the hepatocyte and the publication of one of the earliest electron micrographs of virus-like particles in hepatomas. Don Fawcett’s interest in the male reproductive system was initiated by his collaboration with M.H. Burgos when they described the fine structure and development of cat spermatids in 1955. This was followed by a publication on the differentiation of the spermatid in the toad in 1956. He finally made a landmark contribution to reproductive biology in 1965 with his remarkable paper describing the guinea pig sperm during and after differentiation. During the late 1960s through the early 1980s, the great majority of his publications concerned the testis. A number of his faculty as well as fellows, students and foreign scientists were involved. Among them were: A.K. Christensen, D.W. Hamilton, J.P. Revel, S. Ito, M. Dym, A.P. Hoffer, R. Vitale, D. Phillips, P.M. Heidger, W.B. Neaves, A. Aoki, J. Pudney, J.H.E. Chemes, G.E. Olson, D.S. Friend, H. Hildebrandt-Stark, R. Jones and M.A. Swann. His discoveries included a comprehensive comparative anatomical analysis of sperm cell ultrastructure, elucidation of gametogenesis in the male, the junctional specializations of Sertoli cells in the seminiferous epithelium as the structural basis of the blood-testis barrier and countless other studies of the entire male reproductive tract.

But Don Fawcett’s activity was not limited to reproductive biology: these were years of wondrous advances made by electron microscopy and he was in the forefront of this exciting field. His long-standing interest in brown and white adipose cells has been important in determining the physiological role of these tissues in mammals. Further studies with A.L. Jones demonstrated a hypertrophy of the agranular endoplasmic reticulum in the hepatocyte in response to phenobarbital, a noteworthy finding on liver function. With J.P. Revel he defined the morphology of the remarkable sarcoplasmic reticulum of the fast-contracting puffer fish skeletal muscle and, with N.S. McNutt, he described the corresponding organelle in the atrial and ventricular cardiac muscle of the heart. When he moved to ILRAD, for the first time free of his administrative duties, he devoted his full attention to East Coast fever, a disease that seriously limits livestock production in East Africa. He described the mechanism of the incorporation into lymphoid cells of its bovine parasite Theileria parva. Furthermore, his curiosity was aroused by the fact that the tick vector of East Coast fever could maintain its osmotic balance when it had to conserve water for prolonged periods of time while seeking a mammalian host and then eliminate a large volume of excess fluid taken in during a relatively short period of feeding. He discovered that this was accomplished by transformation of the protein-secreting cells of the salivary gland into transport cells so that the animal could pump copious saliva into the bovine host. This is just one example of Don Fawcett’s extraordinary knowledge of comparative anatomy and physiology.

Throughout his life Don Fawcett continued to do his own experiments. In total, he published over 200 papers on the ultrastructure of cells and organs and was the author of ‘The Cell,’ an atlas of fine structure that contains some the most extraordinary images of biological organization ever published. He also wrote several editions of a famous textbook of histology, known as ‘Bloom and Fawcett’ to generations of students and young investigators who learned from it the microscopic anatomy and histophysiology of the human body.

In the mid-sixties, Don Fawcett had been appointed as an examiner in the School of Veterinary Medicine of the University of Nairobi, and thus began his interest in Africa and photography. For years he spent a month of his summer in Kenya, visiting the national parks and photographing mammals, birds and flowers. The choice of living in Missoula after his retirement was dictated not only by the presence of one his daughters and some of his grandchildren, but also by its proximity to the national parks of the West. His breathtaking photographic images of African and North American wildlife have been widely exhibited and published. For Don Fawcett there was no discontinuity in his exploration of nature, from the submicroscopic organization of living matter to the abandon of a leopard slumbering on a tree branch.

As we wrote elsewhere, Don Fawcett’s intellect, imagination and vast understanding of zoology and comparative physiology had a unique impact on students, postdoctoral fellows and faculty alike. For him, looking at living things was an adventure that never ceased fascinating him even in the last years of his life. Tolerant of human frailness, endowed with an excellent sense of humor, full of understatement about his gifts and accomplishments, he detested pomposity in all its manifestations. He will be remembered and honored by his many students and collaborators who were profoundly influenced by his remarkable gifts as a scientist, chairman and mentor, and by his many British friends and colleagues. He was a valued honorary member of the Anatomical Society of Great Britain and Ireland.