Herbert C. Dessauer, whose 1981 report with Dan Shochat on “Comparative immunological study of albumins of Anolis lizards of the Caribbean islands” was among the very first attempts to reconstruct molecular phylogenetic relationships across Anolis, died earlier this month after a brief illnes. For most of his career, Dessauer was professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at LSU’s Medical Center, where he frequently collaborated with scientists at LSU’s Museum of Natural History. In addition to his 1981 classic, Dessauer was an author on numerous reports on molecular genetics of Anolis during the 1970s, often in collaboration with Dan Shochat and George Gorman. These three scientists, together with a handful of others, provided the foundation for modern molecular genetic studies of anoles. The significance of Dessauer’s contributions to anole biology are particularly noteworthy because he built his distinguished career working primarily with other systems. Indeed, Dessauer’s work with anoles doesn’t even warrant mention in a list of his accomplishments that appears in a historical perspective on his career by fellow herpetologists Ernest Liner and Charles Cole.
Nevertheless, Shochat and Dessauer’s results had a range of important implications for anole systematists; for example, they were among the first to convincingly reject reciprocal monophyly of the alpha and beta series diagnosed previously by Etheridge on the basis of morphological variation (and later diagnosed as distinct genera by Savage). Shochat and Dessauer’s results were a topic of debate in the anole phylogenetics community since before they were even published, and featured prominently in the Third Anolis Newsletter from 1977, where Shochat discussed preliminary results and Ernest Williams critiqued this work. Although Willams appreciated Shochat and Dessauer’s efforts, and understood the potential vale of the data they were obtaining, he ultimately concluded by asking”What does the new evidence [from Shochat and Dessauer] explain that the old Etheridgean scheme did not?” and answering “very little” (emphasis in original). In hindsight, I think his critique was unfair. The molecular genetic evidence they provided proved very convincing to many anole biologists of the day and many of the relationships they recovered remain well-supported, including some groups that conflicted with those recovered by previous morphological analyses and favored by Williams in the 1970s.
As I’ve mentioned previously, some biographers believe that Dessauer’s contributions to anole biology barely deserve mention among all of his other accomplishments. In searching the Google Books database for more information on Dessauer’s contributions, you can get sense for the extent of his pioneering influence. In a remembrance of the famous bird systematist Charles Sibley, Alan Brush places Dessauer alongside Sibley and the primate systematist Morris Goodman as the founders of molecular systematics. In his book Parasites and Infectious Disease: Discovery by Serendipity and Otherwise, Gerald Desch relates stories of Dessauer’s early days implementing molecular genetic analyses and teaching to others to do similar work. I didn’t know Herb Dessauer, but given such anecdotes and the remarkable list of collaborative studies he published, it seems clear that he was not only a pioneer, but also a leader, who inspired others and drove them to advance science in new and interesting ways.
In spite of his many accomplishments, I hope that, given how much Dessauer’s work on anoles influenced myself and other anole biologists, that we see it mentioned in the scientific obituaries that are sure to appear in the coming months.