John Bonner Buck, 92, firefly researcher

April 04, 2005|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

Dr. John Bonner Buck, a National Institutes of Health biologist whose studies of fireflies' flashing began as a young man observing them in his family's Towson back yard, died of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma Wednesday at Fairhaven Retirement Community in Sykesville. He was 92.

Born in Hartford, Conn. he moved to Towson in his late teens when his father was named principal of Towson High School and completed his senior year there in 1931.

While enrolled at the Johns Hopkins University, he became fascinated with fireflies and undertook an investigation into the flashing behavior of a local species, Photinus pyralis, which he observed outside his parents' Allegheny Avenue home during the summer of 1933.

Aided by a schoolboy neighbor, he timed flashes and measured temperature and ambient light with equipment from a Hopkins storeroom. His study found that the timing of the flashing was the basis of dialogue between insects. His doctoral thesis on firefly bioluminescence was published in 1937.

He used a stopwatch to show that the critical response interval for the female firefly's flash is about two seconds. He attracted patrolling male fireflies to a captive male, which he induced to flash with timed pinches.

While studying under Hopkins professor Dr. Samuel O. Mast, he met his teacher's daughter, Elisabeth Mast, then a Radcliffe College junior. They began going on hikes arranged by the Mountain Club of Maryland and soon were engaged.

The couple married in 1939 at Roland Park Presbyterian Church, and Mrs. Buck, who was trained as a child psychologist, later became director of the Kensington Cooperative Nursery School in Montgomery County.

Dr. Buck taught at the University of Rochester from 1939 to 1945, and then joined NIH in suburban Washington. He served as chief of the physical biology laboratory and chief of the section of comparative physiology. His laboratory pursued research on vision, photosynthesis, muscle physiology, insect respiration and bioluminescence.

Dr. Buck's interest in fireflies took him to the tropics several times in the 1960s. Family members said he led the National Science Foundation's South East Asian Bioluminescence Expedition to Papua New Guinea on the research vessel Alpha Helix and earlier to Thailand and Borneo. His wife collaborated on much of his research.

Dr. Buck's interests in bioluminescence were not confined to insects. In a 1961 study, his family said, he theorized about the evolution of marine bioluminescence by calling attention to the possibility that it could account for the well-developed eyes of organisms inhabiting deep seas beyond the reach of sunlight.

Dr. Buck retired in 1985.

"He never lost his curiosity about things and was always investigating," said his daughter Susan Hibbitt of Bristol, R.I.

Family members said he was an ardent pacifist and registered as a conscientious objector during World War II. A Quaker, he stood a weekly vigil throughout the Vietnam War and helped found the Bethesda Friends Meeting. He was active in environmental, nuclear disarmament and civil rights causes.

Services were held Saturday at Fairhaven, where he had moved from Kensington 15 years ago.

In addition to his wife and daughter, survivors include two sons, Alan Buck of Pocasset, Mass., and Peter M. Buck of Alexandria, Va.; another daughter, Judith Gyovai of Woods Hole, Mass.; 12 grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

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