Important herpetologist leaves a legacy to WCSU
His former student, now a professor, will oversee collection
DANBURY, CONN. — Theodora Pinou respected and envied the reputation of her Ph.D. adviser at New York University, where she was a doctoral student studying North American snakes. She could not have known then, however, that she would be the steward selected to preserve his research heritage for posterity.
When Herndon G. Dowling died this year, he left his extensive library of books, field notes, drawings and specimens to Western Connecticut State University, with Pinou, who is now a professor of Biological & Environmental Sciences, designated as the inaugural faculty curator of the H.G. Dowling Herpetological Collection at WCSU. She will work with Western’s archivist, Brian Stevens, to not only organize the collection but make it available to scholars.
Dowling had a broad interest in all reptiles and amphibians but his greatest contributions were in the resolution of generic relationships of snakes and his classification of the snakes of the world. His library contains notes from correspondences with herpetological giants like Arnold Grobman, Norman Hartweg, Emmett Reid Dunn, James Oliver, and others. The library of his life’s work contains specimens, field notes and drawings, photos and slides, and the 500 books that he purchased over his 50-year career.
“His collection positions us as a player in global herpetology,” Pinou said. “End of discussion.”
Stevens said the Dowling library can be the first step in building a significant archive of scientific research at the university.
“We can use it as a cornerstone,” he said. “The point of taking this on is to build on it, so a visit to that archive may not only lead you to something serendipitous but may also bring you back to explore something else.” Once the collection is organized, it will allow students to work with specimens and related documents collected as far back as the 1940s.
“For an undergrad, that would be pretty cool,” Stevens said.
Pinou, the daughter of Greek immigrants and the first in her family to attend college, was the last student Herndon guided through the Ph.D. process before he retired.
“He was the most influential person in my life,” she said. “He took me to meetings, he helped me write, I trusted his judgment, he was on my side. He invested tremendous energy and resources in his students, encouraged them, and stepped up when there were unexpected consequences. It had a great effect on me and influenced my view of the student-mentor relationship and collegiality. He was in the Marines in
WWII, and you could see that in how he treated people – the foundation for his commitment to trust, dedication and fellowship among people with common goals. He believed that teamwork would accomplish more than independent entities acting alone. Probably every student and colleague he knew feels the same way. He was completely committed to his students and scholarship, probably sometimes more than to his own family. There must have been nights his wife wanted him home – but he was with me in the lab studying manuscripts!”
Pinou emphatically admired everything about Herndon.
“His early handwriting is like pieces of art,” she said. “Tiny letters. Perfect! He was from a generation of perfect people.”
Pinou is already familiar with Herndon’s library because he gave her access to it for her own research.
“I’ve been working with it all these years,” Pinou said. “Now it’s a question of prioritizing and thinking about how it should be used, how to access it. What is the strength of the collection and how will we make it available to the public?”
Because of the university’s location in a metropolitan region, Pinou envisions scholars from throughout the eastern U.S. taking advantage of Herndon’s insights.
“Snake systematists and anyone interested in snake biology will be here,” Pinou said. The field notes permit scholars to gain insight on how biodiversity has changed in 50 to 75 years. Plus the notes! There are theses written in the margins of his books — questions, observations, waiting for someone to answer.”
In addition to his work in higher education, Dowling had been curator of reptiles at the Bronx Zoo (1965 – 1973), a researcher at the American Museum of Natural History, and editor of several herpetology journals. When he retired from NYU in 1991 at the age of 70, he returned to his home state of Alabama, built an office and laboratory at his house, and continued his research. In addition to working with Pinou on several projects, he produced papers with other scholars on subjects such as the early stages of molecular immunology and evolutionary biology.
“We are very excited to receive the Dowling collection,” said Dr. Missy Alexander, dean of the Macricostas School of Arts and Sciences. “It has tremendous historical significance and will certainly inspire new scholarship. It is a testament to Dr. Pinou’s commitment to her field and her mentor’s legacy. This is one more indication that Biology is truly a signature program at WCSU.”
Pinou and Stevens are in the process of applying for grants to hire an assistant with a scientific background to help go through the materials and put them in searchable order, a precise project that undoubtedly would please Dowling.
“He supported the enterprise of knowledge,” Pinou said. “He would let us use his journals and his papers. But when we were done we couldn’t return it to the file. We had to give it to him — and he would return to the file to make sure it was in the proper place.”
For more information, contact the Office of University Relations at (203) 837-8486.
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