John W. Kanwisher of Woods Hole, a biophysicist and inventor at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution for decades who also taught at MIT and Harvard, has died. Mr. Kanwisher died in his sleep of natural causes on May 7 at the age of 95.
His wife of 73 years, Joan T. Kanwisher, an artist and illustrator who was instrumental in the development of the Shining Sea Bikeway, died September 28, also at 95.
Dr. Kanwisher was a senior scientist in the biology department at WHOI for more than 30 years before leaving in 1981 to work out of his home on Bell Tower Lane. He co-invented the first electronically controlled diving rebreather, made possible the first EKG of a whale, and played a central role in transforming the study of animal physiology from the laboratory to the wild through the use of telemetry devices he invented.
He was known to many as an eccentric and adventurous member of the community with an insatiable curiosity and infectious enthusiasm.
He was raised in Oneida, New York, the son of an Irish-American mother and a German immigrant father who arrived penniless in the United States at age 17.
His childhood days were spent hunting and trapping, and working at his uncle’s farm and his dad’s automobile repair shop. He excelled at physics and mathematics. He noted in an oral history recorded by WHOI in 2004 that “I suppose technically we were below the poverty line, but in terms of environment it was the richest environment I can imagine.”
He received a full scholarship to the University of Rochester where he compressed three years of coursework into 18 months, then interrupted his studies to enlist in the US Navy. During World War II he was posted on a ship in the Pacific, repairing radios and other electronic devices. At the end of the war, he married his freshman sweetheart, Joan Taylor, resumed his studies under the GI Bill, and graduated with a degree in optics in 1947.
After completing his doctorate in biophysics in 1951, also from the University of Rochester, he took a position with the US Air Force in Sacramento. But he and his wife disliked the snobbiness and drinking habits of the Officers’ Club, and soon the couple set out looking for adventure. In the Bahamas, Dr. Kanwisher had a chance encounter with the Norwegian physiologist Per Scholander, who suggested he show up at WHOI and ask for a job. As he put it an interview: “I walked in off the street and they hired me...I couldn’t believe it....A few weeks later I went off on the Atlantis.”
The Kanwishers settled in Woods Hole in 1953 in a house near Oyster Pond they built with their own hands, with guidance from Joan Kanwisher’s father, Robert F. Taylor, a builder.
With Dr. Scholander, Dr. Kanwisher sailed on a research vessel in the summer of 1954 to Labrador, where they measured the gas concentration of bubbles trapped in icebergs. In a paper on this work published in 1956, they argued that the very slow rate of gas diffusion through ice meant that “gas trapped in the glacier would remain unchanged for millennia. Analysis of such gas could therefore give information about the atmospheric composition at the time the ice was formed.” This insight was key to later work by others using ice cores to reconstruct the historical record of carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere—foundational for modern climate science.
The Kanwishers reunited in Labrador, his wife traveling there on missionary vessels because women were not allowed on scientific research ships. The couple camped out in a tent and became friends with local missionaries and Eskimos.
A few years later Dr. Kanwisher learned of a live whale that was stranded on the beach in Provincetown. Few studies of any kind had been done on living whales. “I wanted samples of breath to tell how the respiration works. I wanted to measure the heartbeats.” He knew he had to hurry because a beached whale wouldn’t survive for long. He enlisted his Woods Hole neighbor, Alfred W. Senft, who “stole some welding rods from the MBL shop for electrodes to go through the blubber.” Next they needed to get electric power to the whale. “It was Christmas,” he recounted, “and I tore some Christmas tree lights down from somebody’s house and broke into another house and got 110 volts out to the whale, and we got marvelous EKG records.” The two men published the first whale electrocardiogram in Science magazine in 1960.
One of Dr. Kanwisher’s inventions was an oxygen electrode, which was the basis for another device he invented with colleague Walter Starck: the first electronically controlled diving rebreather. Unlike earlier rebreather systems, their invention used helium rather than nitrogen, which reduced risk of the bends.
His most important scientific contribution was his approach to the study of animal physiology, conducting research in natural habitat rather than in a lab setting.
Dr. Kanwisher loved sharing the excitement of science with others, teaching courses at Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology and traveling widely to lecture on his work.
Some of his free time in Woods Hole he devoted to odd marine constructions. He used newly introduced epoxy resins and glass fiber cloth, along with very thin and flexible plywood to make a series of experimental boats. He navigated several of them down the Inland Waterway to Florida, on one of these trips seated atop a yellow vinyl bar stool he had fished out of a dumpster.
He leaves his two daughters, Nancy G. Kanwisher of Cambridge and S. Robyn Kanwisher Tevah of Germantown, Pennsylvania; and three granddaughters, Aviva Tevah, Shira Tevah and Zemora Tevah.