Word has been received that Llewellya Hillis of Woods Hole, a well-known marine biologist specializing in coral reefs, died March 23. Dr. Hillis, who was in the first class taught at the Marine Biological Laboratory, was 89.
During her career she would explore the reefs of the Indian Ocean in 1963 and a nuclear bomb crater in 1976 as well as conduct research in post-Mao China in 1985—one of the first Western scientists to do so. She would also have two coral reef species named after her.
She was born in Walkerville, Ontario. Fired by a steadfast determination that fueled her aspiration to do more in life than become a wife and mother—the norm during her childhood—she pursued education that would prepare her for a career in science, a field dominated by men.
She earned a bachelor’s degree at Queens University, graduating with honors in 1952, then studied at the University of Michigan for her master’s degree, in 1953, followed by her PhD, in 1957. While she was at Michigan she met William Randolph Taylor, a renowned marine botanist who became her mentor. He introduced her to the marine research community in Woods Hole, and she participated in the first class at MBL, during which she was able to view samples in their natural habitat.
She would later become a world expert on the coral reef algal species Halimeda.
With her scholastic goals in Michigan complete, she began post-doctorate work in New Brunswick, where she met Paul A. Colinvaux, an English scientist whom she would marry. She and her husband joined the faculty at Ohio State University in the 1960s, where she was the only woman in the zoology department and faced little support from her peers.
She had an inspiration that seaweeds, in particular Halimeda, formed an important and overlooked part of the substrate of coral reefs. Because no research dollars were available to her to pursue her hypothesis, she obtained her own; she won funding from the US Office of Naval Research and the National Science Foundation, virtually unprecedented for a woman at the time.
Field opportunities presented another obstacle to overcome. Women had long been barred from a key research site, a nuclear bomb crater in the Enewetak Atoll in the Pacific Ocean. When the ban on women was lifted, Dr. Hillis persuaded the US Navy to let her be one of the first to visit the destination, where she explored the crater and found Halimeda at the bottom.
When she could not be doing fieldwork, Dr. Hillis continued her research in the laboratory by culturing seaweeds; she would have seawater brought in for this purpose. The result of her extensive research was a book-length monograph on Halimeda in 1980 that established her as the world specialist.
During her time on the faculty at Ohio State, she developed the university’s first marine biology course at a time when there were no textbooks on the subject. She also became a mentor and role model for many students, especially young women, over the decades of her tenure. In the early 1990s, Dr. Hillis and her husband left OSU for the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, where she continued her work before eventually retiring to Woods Hole.
Over the course of her career Dr. Hillis served as a Founder’s Fellow at the British Museum, in 1971; was a Science Fellow at the Bunting Institute at Radcliffe College, 1985-87; won the Outstanding Scientist of the Year Award from the Association of Women in Science in Ohio, in 1988; received an honorary degree from her alma mater, Queens University, in 1995, and an Honorary Professorship from the University of Bucharest in Romania, in 1998; and had two coral reef species named after her: Carpathea llewellyae and Leckhamptonella llewellyae.
She leaves two children, Roger Colinvaux of Washington, DC, and Catherine Colinvaux of Northborough; and four grandchildren.
She was predeceased by her husband; they had been married for 54 years at the time of his death in 2016.