Dean Whittier, professor of biological sciences, emeritus, has died

Dean P. Whittier (Vanderbilt University)
Dean P. Whittier (Vanderbilt University)

Dean P. Whittier, an emeritus professor of biological sciences at Vanderbilt and an internationally known researcher on the biology of ferns, died May 29. He was 83.

Whittier was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, and received his bachelor’s degree in botany from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He earned his master’s and doctorate degrees in biology from Harvard University. He was an assistant professor of biology at Virginia Polytechnic Institute from 1961 to 1964 before returning to Harvard as a postdoctoral fellow from 1964 to 1965. He joined the Vanderbilt University faculty in 1965.

Throughout his career, Whittier maintained a strong research program in botany with a special interest in gametophytes of non-photosynthetic, subterranean ferns and fern allies that are dependent on internal mycorrhizal fungi for their organic nutrition. His research focused on various aspects of development including spore germination, gametophyte growth, and defining the specific role of fungi in development. Whittier pioneered methods of in vitro culture of gametophytes of seedless vascular plants and published more than 60 research articles on the biology of ferns.

His stature in the field is reflected in his election to numerous offices in national and international scientific organizations, including the American Fern Society and the International Association of Pteridologists. Whittier served on the Education Committee of the Botanical Society of America from 1982 to 1985.

At Vanderbilt, he was a mainstay in introductory courses for more than two decades and an anchor in training undergraduate majors in advanced botany courses. His students were always impressed with the extent and breadth of his knowledge, his ability to present information in a clear, straightforward manner, and his sharp, dry wit.

Burton Bogitsh, professor of biological sciences, emeritus, remembers Whittier as a private man and serious academic, devoted to his ferns and their embryos, “which he guarded to an extreme.”

“I had recommended Dean to succeed me as chair of the department,” Bogitsh said. “He was reluctant but stuck with it for the three-year minimum. It was a chore for him since he was not confrontational but had to be so at times.

“In spite of this, he did make a good chairman,” Bogitsh said. “He was also noted for always attending Vanderbilt Commencement ceremonies and wearing his Harvard crimson robe. In general, Dean was a sweet guy, and we all shall miss him.”

Whittier was chair of the Department of General Biology from 1975 to 1978, served three years on the Board of Advisors of the VU Honor Council, and was the faculty adviser to the Ice Hockey Club, a reflection of his lifelong love of the sport. For a number of years, Whittier played in a senior hockey league in Nashville.

He was devoted to his family and his beloved New England sports teams, the Boston Bruins and Boston Red Sox, Bogitsh said.

Leonard Alberstadt, professor of geology, emeritus, recalled Whittier as one of his closest friends on campus.

“Dean and I had lunch together just about every day. If the weather was satisfactory, we’d eat lunch on one of the benches outside. We’d talk about some of the things going on at the university or college specifically, or our own department,” Alberstadt said. “We shared a love of baseball. He was a Boston Red Sox fan, and I the Atlanta Braves. Dean was a quiet man and not demonstrative at all. I never saw or heard him raise his voice. He was a New Englander ‘yep’ and ‘no’ man on most occasions.”

Whittier was awarded emeritus status by the university in 2001.

He is survived by his wife of nearly 61 years, Virginia E. (Johnson) Whittier; son Ethan Whittier of San Jose, California; daughter Karen Whittier of Nashville; brother Craig A. Whittier and his wife, Barbara, of Millbury, Massachusetts; a niece; and two nephews.

Private funeral services and burial were held in Sutton, Massachusetts.