John L. Howland ’57, Bowdoin’s Josiah Little Professor of Natural Sciences and professor of biology and biochemistry emeritus, died on October 18, 2009, at Mid Coast Hospital in Brunswick following a brief illness.
He was born in Quincy, Mass., on December 14, 1935, and graduated from North Quincy High School. He was a member of Beta Theta Pi at Bowdoin, and graduated cum laude as a member of Phi Beta Kappa. He studied at Yale University Medical School for one year, and then at Harvard, where he received his Ph.D. in 1961. He was a post- doctoral fellow at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands for the next two years and moved to Brunswick in 1963 to join the Bowdoin faculty as assistant professor of biology. He was active in the College’s Senior Center program from its outset in 1964, and for the next 15 years worked to offer a series of special seminars to seniors. He was promoted to associate professor in 1967, and to full professor in 1972. By 1971, he had elevated biochemistry to a separate department and led its transformation into one of the most popular majors at the College. He was named to the Josiah Little professorship in 1977. He also served as faculty representative to Bowdoin’s Board of Trustees and Board of Overseers. He was widely recognized for his breakthrough research into causes of muscular dystrophy and the cell biochemistry of genetic disorders. In 1974, he appeared on the Jerry Lewis Telethon to explain his research, which challenged the belief that the disease is caused by defects in muscles. He theorized that muscular dystrophy is instead a genetic defect in membrane configuration in a number of tissues other than muscle. He authored three textbooks, Introduction to Cell Physiology, Cell Physiology and Environmental Physiology, and co-authored A Mathematical Approach to Biology. He published many scholarly articles in professional journals; and, as a member of the Biochemical Society of Great Britain and the American Society of Biological Chemists, his research was widely reported on both sides of the Atlantic. He also served on the board of directors of The Blood Research Foundation. He was the recipient of numerous grants for his research from, among others, the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Public Health Service, and the American Heart Association. He was also awarded a U.S. Public Health Service Research Career Development Award. In 2002, the year he retired, he wrote the first book on a newly discovered life form called the Archaea, The Surprising Archaea: Discovering a New Domain of Life. He was a member of the Merrymeeting Audubon Society, and enjoyed gardening, fishing and birding. He is survived by his wife of 48 years, Cynthia (Birge) Howland; son Ethan Howland; daughter Hannah Judson; a sister, Jane Howland; and five grandchildren.