Mac Vincent Edds, Jr. (1917–1975)

Mac Vincent Edds, Jr.: An appreciation
written by Richard J. Goss

Developmental Biology, Volume 52, Issue 2,
September 1976, Pages IN2,v-viii

It was the Saturday after Thanksgiving and Mac Edds was not one to deny himself the pleasure of the late Indian Summer weather that afternoon. Despite a mild heart attack he had experienced over a decade before, he still liked to chop firewood in his backyard. It was a very small infarct, but in a very crucial location near the cardiac pacemaker, which brought about his instant demise. He was 58 years old.

Born on March 25, 1917, Mac grew up in New Jersey and like his father before him, went to Amherst College. There he developed a lifelong affinity for the beauty of western Massachusetts. In later years he was to be drawn back to this region. I remember one occasion, driving through a particularly beautiful section of woodland, when he was moved to comment on how good it was just to know that places like that still existed.

Perhaps it was his love of nature that attracted him to the field of biology as an undergraduate at Amherst. More likely, it was as much the intellectual challenge of the field, a challenge to which he was introduced by the inimitable enthusiasm of Amherst's Biology Professor, Oscar Schotté. From the very beginning, their relationship was special, and their mutual respect and friendship were to last the rest of their lives. Schotté was Mac's first mentor, and it was he who stimulated his interest in embryology. The problem of embryonic induction dominated the 1930's, culminating in Spemann's Nobel Prize in 1938. Thus it was that after graduation that year, Mac remained at Amherst to work for his M.A. on the specificity of inductive mechanisms in amphibian embryos. In those days, one had to be a skilled microsurgeon to work in embryology. Under Schotté's guidance, Mac developed the patience and dexterity one needs for such meticulous research. Like all embryology graduate students in the era before grants were freely available, he collected his own eggs, raised his own embryos, did his own operations, and cut his own sections. Mac passed on to many of his own students the traditional secrets of the embryologists. Every spring was an occasion to organize collecting trips to local ponds where students were initiated into the arcane ways of telling one species of Ambystoma egg from another.

In 1940 he began work toward his Ph.D. under the guidance of John S. Nicholas, at Yale, where he turned his attention to problems of embryogenesis in mammals. Here also he was exposed to men like Alexander Petrunkevitch, G. Evelyn Hutchinson, and especially Ross G. Harrison. It was in this kind of scientific ambience that his lifelong commitment to developmental biology took root.

After receiving his Ph.D. in 1943, he moved on to the University of Chicago to work in the laboratory of Paul Weiss. He was quick to recognize the genius of Weiss, and it was Weiss who inspired Mac's deep appreciation of the complexities and unsolved problems of the developing nervous system. During World War II it had become acutely apparent how little was understood about nerve regeneration. Not surprisingly, Mac was swept up in the excitement of the now classic research on nerve growth going on in Weiss' lab at that time. Weiss had already emerged as a leading figure in developmental biology, and his fascination with the almost philosophical aspects of developing systems, not to mention his talent for expressing complicated ideas with unsurpassed clarity, rubbed off on Mac. There developed an intellectual bond between the two men built on Mac's genuine esteem for Weiss' catalytic effect on the then infant field of developmental biology.

After spending two years in the Department of Anatomy at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, Mac joined the Department of Biology at Brown University in 1947. J. Walter Wilson had recently been appointed chairman of this department at a time when most of its senior members had retired. Seizing upon his opportunity to build a completely new department, Wilson attracted to Brown an assortment of bright young scientists, not the least of whom was Mac Edds. Under Wilson's benevolent dictatorship, Mac's scientific career flourished, as did the fortunes of the department. The proximity of Providence to Woods Hole inevitably led to Mac's association with the embryology course taught at the Marine Biological Laboratory. Summers in the 1950's and 1960's were spent in the intellectual ferment of the M.B.L., where Mac, when he became director of the embryology course in 1956, set the standards for its development into the stimulating and progressive course it has been ever since.

What he did for the embryology course at Woods Hole he also did for the one at Brown. As the field shifted from classical descriptive embryology to more sophisticated approaches to cellular differentiation and macromolecular synthesis, Mac guided the direction of his course accordingly. His students thus became exposed to progressively up-to-date problems of development, yet were not allowed to ignore their intellectual heritage in classical embryology. They loved to get him going on the history of embryology, and his lectures were laced with anecdotes about Louis Agassiz and the early days at M.B.L.

The rigors of his courses, both graduate and undergraduate, brought out the best and the worst in his students. Teaching to Mac was not a popularity contest. The standards he set made even the best students stretch themselves. Each of his lectures was a little gem, and the challenge of teaching brought out the perfectionist in Mac. His classes were always carefully organized and his lectures the essence of Eddsian eloquence. Few embryologists could explain the more abstruse concepts of developmental biology with the intellectual crispness which Mac brought to his lectures. Yet few teachers were so intolerant of shoddy thinking and writing on exams and term papers, as many of his former students will attest. Thesis writing under Mac's tutelage was as much an exercise in English composition as it was in scientific logic. Those who ran his gauntlet knew they had been exposed to the best in the business.

Mac continued his research on problems of nerve growth at Brown, becoming especially interested in the relations between axons and their end organs. His early studies on the reciprocal influences between nerves and muscles helped set the stage for the subsequent expansion of neuromuscular research in more recent years. Perhaps his most important breakthrough was the discovery of collateral nerve growth. By cutting one nerve in a doubly innervated muscle, he noted that the remaining axons sprouted collateral fibers which reinnervated the nerveless regions of the muscle. It was the profound implications of this observation which attracted so much attention to the problem of nerve-muscle specificity, a problem still yet to be fully explained.

Mac's research, like his teaching, evolved with the times. As the focus of developmental biology shifted from embryology proper to lower levels of organization, Mac turned his attention to problems of macromolecular synthesis, supplementing his surgical expertise with electron micros copy and biochemical techniques. Through the 1960's, he concentrated on problems of collagen synthesis with particular reference to the nature of the influences responsible for the ordered arrangement of this fibrous protein in the basement lamella of the epidermis. Yet he never lost his fascination for developmental mechanisms at the tissue and organ levels. In the 1970's he set out to investigate the problem of how, in the metamorphosis of the larval flounder, the neural connections in the CNS might shift to compensate for the change in orientation as one eye migrates to the opposite side of the head. To obtain material for study, he went to Friday Harbor, where larvae at appropriate stages of metamorphosis could be collected. There are stories of Mac spending his nights lying flat on the dock dangling a light in the icy waters and dipping out the flounder larvae he attracted. When the novelty of this enterprise wore off he recruited students to do this collecting, an arrangement perpetuated by the investment of quantities of beer.

Mac wore the three traditional academic hats with uncommon skill. He was a gifted teacher, an able researcher, and a dedicated administrator. It was administration, however, which gradually took over his life, although he gave up the others with great reluctance. When he succeeded to the chairmanship of the Biology Department at Brown, the move to establish a medical school was already underway. It fell to him, therefore, to guide the early development of this program. In cooperation with his colleagues at Brown, he was determined that this medical school should be an integral part of the University and that its goal should be the education of scientist-physicians. Accordingly, it grew by accretion to the Department of Biology rather than as a separate entity off campus. During the 1960's he threw himself into the task of expanding the fifteen-man Department of Biology into a Division of Biological and Medical Sciences nearly ten times as large. In addition to the usual duties of a department chairman, he supervised the construction of new buildings, the recruitment of medical faculty and the collaboration of half a dozen community hospitals. The subsequent success of the program he started bears witness to the wisdom of many of his earlier decisions. When Amherst awarded him an honorary Sc.D. in 1968, his citation read, "You fearlessly walked in that jungle that separates clinical and pre-clinical medicine, and made the beasts on either side lie down together."

Achievements of this magnitude are not made without a measure of human conflict, and in the late 1960's political and personal tensions on campus resulted in a new administration of the Division. This upheaval, followed by his divorce and subsequent remarriage, led to his departure from Brown after twenty-five years on the faculty to take up a position as Dean of the Faculty of Natural Science and Mathematics at the University of Massachusetts. Here he spent several happy years carving out yet another career for himself in the familiar and friendly surroundings of Amherst. Only an irresistible offer to become Executive Director of the Neurosciences Research Program at M.I.T. and the chance to work with his respected friend, Francis 0. Schmitt, could lure him away from the hills of western Massachusetts. As always, he joyfully rose to the challenge of this new, and last, position so tailor-made to his talents. It afforded him an opportunity for "mental Indian wrestling," as he called it, a sport he especially enjoyed with sharp young colleagues. His new post also gave him time to think and write and provided a vantage point from which to influence the direction of neuroscience. The rewards he might have anticipated were cut short by his untimely death on November 29, 1975.

Those who were privileged to have known Mac personally were unanimous about one thing, that he was not an easy man to understand. He was independent, and to some he appeared to be distant, but this guarded an inner warmth known only to his intimates. He was a perfectionist, a quality expressed in the honesty of his own character and in his expectations of others. This was responsible for his sense of fairness as well as the critical and demanding side of his nature. His students hungered for his compliments. They never came. But he always put his students first, even when it meant asking the President of the University to leave his office because a student needed to talk with him.

Mac was a complex mix of intellectual elitism and personal egalitarianism. He was the perfect host, whether in soirees at home or on state occasions sponsored by the Neurosciences Research Program in the mansion of the Brandegee estate. In the elegance of its leatherbound library with paintings of ancestors on the wall, or in the mirrored ballroom, he spoke of his guests as "my lords and ladies." He loved fine wines, classical music, stimulating conversation, and graceful, intelligent women. He disliked small talk, would not tolerate superficiality, and routinely verbalized his low opinion of the "mindless" drivers of other cars, much to the shock of his own passengers. He used to chuckle at New Yorker cartoons and relished the subtleties of a droll story. As his college roommate aptly put it, "He was a delightful person with a quiet sense of humor that he used sparingly and always with good effect."

There are monuments to Mac's life amongst his students, his publications, and the institutions to which he ministrated. None, however,is so lasting as this journal. As managing editor during its first dozen years or so, he brought to his task the same insistence on excellence which characterized the other responsibilities of his professional life. To the regret of some potential contributors, there was no compromise with quality. He was tough enough to risk the loss of occasional friendships to make certain that Developmental Biology would become the leading journal in its field. To the everlasting gratitude of his colleagues, in this he succeeded.