It is with sadness that we share the news that William Ryan Dawson, pioneering avian ecophysiologist, died March 8, 2020 in Ann Arbor, Mich. Professor and Curator Emeritus Robert Payne published a special In Memoriam in The Auk, Ornithological Advances, Nov. 18, 2020, about the former University of Michigan biology chair and UMMZ director, which is excerpted here.

Dawson wrote his first paper, on fossil sparrows from the La Brea tar pits in 1947. He earned a master of arts in 1950 and his doctorate degree in 1953 from the University of California at Los Angeles, where he was the first Ph.D. graduate student of George Bartholomew. His dissertation was a comparison of the behavior and environmental physiology of two species of towhees in southern California. Bartholomew was a major influence on Dawson’s scientific research, encouraging an experimental approach to the study of natural history. Together, they published 18 papers and book chapters from 1952 to 1982 and went on a number of expeditions together to New Guinea, California and the Galapagos to study marine iguanas.

William Dawson in his research lab. Image credit: David Bay

Dawson began his time at the University of Michigan in 1953 as an instructor in zoology. He was promoted to assistant professor (1956), associate professor (1959), professor (1962) and was awarded a collegiate professorship in 1981. He was named Professor Emeritus in 1994 and was Research Scientist Emeritus in the Museum of Zoology until its move in 2016.

He supervised 19 doctoral students from 1962 to 2001 in comparative physiology (of birds and vertebrates). Most of his students developed their own distinguished academic careers.

Dawson received numerous honors and awards and he made significant contributions to several professional societies. To name just a few, he was elected a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1965 and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1962. He served as president of the American Society of Zoologists and for his lifetime achievement in ornithological research, he received the Loye and Alden Miller Research Award in 1996 from the Cooper Ornithological Society. His major contribution to bird conservation was as chair of the scientific advisory panel on populations of spotted owl, published in an Audubon Conservation Report in The Condor.

Dawson served as chair of biology (1974 – 1982) and director of the Museum of Zoology (1982 – 1993) and as a research scientist in the museum. Dawson devoted more than 50 years of service, vision, energy and administrative skill to the University of Michigan.

Read the full In Memoriam by Robert Payne (with subscription) in The Auk

UM Faculty History Project Memoir

MLive obituary

Compiled by Gail Kuhnlein