Remembering Dr. G. Richard Harbison

Dr. G. Richard Harbison, scientist and explorer, from his memorial site, here.

Walking into Richard Harbison’s office was like walking into a wizard’s house. There were jars upon jars of strange, beautiful, and grotesque creatures, big and small, floating in different colored liquids, packed all around the room. And the books! Oh my gosh the books. Towers of them. Teetering on the flimsy foundations of old manuscripts and monographs–all olive green and crumbling around the corners. It was 2010, and I was nervous. I was nervous when my PhD advisor asked me to meet Richard and bring back some specimens. I was nervous on the drive over in my grad school’s big, white, smelly, mud-covered van. I was nervous wandering lost and anxious around the maze of a building Richard worked in. But now, peering into a blood-red jar with some thin-skinned dead thing inside, I was really nervous. For the record, when Richard walked in he also looked like a wizard. And of course, that look made sense, because he IS a legend of the open ocean research community. One of the founders of the field. But far from turning me into an owl, Richard took me in, under his wing, and taught me about the open ocean he studied.

And it is a truly remarkable place. Richard was a connoisseur of the beautiful and bizarre. As a pioneering expert on open ocean comb jellies, he traveled from pole to pole, open ocean to deep sea. He once spent a year of near perpetual daylight and snow, living in the Arctic during the Northern Hemisphere summer, and the Antarctic during the Southern Hemisphere summer. He also came up with the hare-brained idea of jumping off Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s (WHOI) perfectly good ship in the middle of the open ocean to see what lived out there. Along with his colleagues, he ushered in an age of open-ocean discovery at WHOI. Did I mention he’s one of the original discoverers of the “placenta/trash-bag jellyfish” Deepstaria reticulum?

Years ago, after he showed me around his lab, grumbling about being downsized to a smaller office, he took me out for sandwiches. All along the walk, he sung the praises of this particular pulled pork sandwich that I simply had to try, before I finally broke it to him that I didn’t eat meat. There was shock and dismay! Yet he still insisted on buying me a veggie burger while we talked about the life of an open ocean specialist. He seemed legitimately concerned that my lunch was, in fact, awful, and wouldn’t let the conversation go for too long before checking in on the state of my sandwich, asking if I’d changed my mind yet about the pulled pork. And you know what? I bet that pulled pork sandwich really was a thousand times better than my veggie burger…

After lunch we spent another couple of hours in his office, surrounded by all those jars and books, like monarchs surrounded by treasure. Even though I’d just started grad school, I felt like a colleague that day. I even remember disagreeing with him, and being so proud of that. I don’t remember exactly what we disagreed about, but he seemed genuinely amused by it. Like he’d finally succeeded in cracking my polite reserve and now the real fun would begin. He seemed to come alive with a good debate. It also says a lot about a senior scientist who can coax a new trainee into speaking their mind. It’s not easy, and it’s a rare gift that Richard possessed.

When it was time for me to leave, Richard loaded me up elbow to shoulder with old, invaluable monographs. Things that I could take home as I started my new career.

This is why the last few weeks have been full of reflection and joy and sadness. Richard passed away on March 22nd from cancer, and with him the world lost an amazing man, scientist, comb jelly lover, polyglot, chef extraordinaire, and sandwich connoisseur, in addition to husband, father of three, and devout Christian. He was a kind, cantankerous, adventurous soul. He helped me on my own scientific journey, not only by giving me the old crumbly monographs that still line my shelves, but by inspiring in me both wonder and courage. Thank you Richard, for the joy and awe you shared with me and the world.

You can read more about Richard’s amazing life and adventures at WHOI’s memorial site, here:

Donations in his name can be made to John Wesley United Methodist Church, 270 Gifford Street, Falmouth, MA 02540.

RR Helm (61 Posts)

RR Helm is a postdoc studying sea anemones and jellyfish at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.