In Memoriam: Talbot H. Waterman

Talbot H. Waterman, a Yale scientist renowned for his research on underwater optics — particularly on how aquatic animals use polarized light to navigate — died on Sept. 11 at the age of 96.

A member of the Yale faculty for four decades, he was an active emeritus professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology until his death. Two years ago, he traveled to Italy to receive the Oceanographic Society’s Nils Gunnar Jerlov Award, named in honor of an early leader in the area of ocean optics research with whom Waterman collaborated. The prestigious award recognized Waterman as one of the earliest explorers of light polarization and its significance to aquatic animals.

Born on July 3, 1914, in East Orange, New Jersey, Waterman earned his B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. at Harvard University. While a freshman there, he attended lectures by G.H. Parker, an early expert on crustacean vision. Waterman published his first scientific paper, on the photobehavior of a water mite, just a year after finishing his undergraduate degree. His graduate work focused on deep-sea animals and on crustacean neurobiology.

After earning his degrees at Harvard, Waterman joined the military as a scientific consultant and was stationed in the Pacific, where he gained experience in communications and radar navigation. He published a paper on Japanese radar in 1946 in American Scientist.

After arriving at Yale in 1946, Waterman attended a seminar given by Karl von Frisch, who had discovered by studying the honeybee dance language that bees relied on polarized light — the directional orientation of light that indicates the sun’s position in the sky — to navigate. He was inspired to investigate whether polarized light was an important element in the visual behavior of aquatic animals. Carrying a handheld polarizer, he made underwater observations while snorkeling and scuba diving, later using a submersible camera and other equipment for research deeper under water.

Waterman’s research at Yale included many aspects of the physiological and behavioral relevance of underwater optics to biology, tackling questions ranging from the visual behavior and light ecology of crustaceans and fishes to the compass-like direction-finding and progress measurements of basic navigation. To understand how sensitive sea creatures were to underwater polarized light, he conducted research involving light and electron microscopy of the eyes and retinas, as well as the molecular biology of the visual pigments that absorb the light and start signals toward the brain via the optic nerve. Until the end of his life, he was devoted to bridging the scientific work in marine animal navigation and in optics.

Waterman did research in laboratories throughout the world and collaborated internationally with other scientists. He is the author of a continuously well-read chapter in the “Handbook of Sensory Physiology” and a two-volume account of crustacean physiology. His most recent paper appeared when he was 92 years old.

Waterman’s other interests included classical music, visual arts, dance and theater, and he was a collector of contemporary art and a specialist on Australian art.

He is survived by his partner, Joe Gifford.

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