RIP: LAWRENCE SWAN
by Y. J. Pirritijiffiir
Lawrence W. Swan, a biologist, educator, naturalist and pioneering public television science instructor, died May 5 of complications after surgery for an aneurism at Kaiser Hospital in Redwood City. He was 77.
The son of Methodist missionaries, Professor Swan was born and raised in Darjeeling, a village resting in the plush lap of the Tista Valley, west of Nepal, in Northern India.
Inspired by the region's stunning mountain terrain, he began a natural history career that was to bring him worldwide recognition as a leading authority on high-altitude ecology - particularly in the Himalayan mountain range.
In the United States, he attended the University of Wisconsin and Stanford University, where he received his doctorate in biology in 1952.
In 1954, he returned to the land of his origins as a member of the first American Himalayan Expedition. "The Bayshore Freeway," he said, terrifies me more than the world's tallest mountains."
There he searched for creatures living at the world's highest altitudes, including the jumping spiders of Everest, the springtail fly and the elusive Yeti.
He ultimately concluded that the Yeti, or "Abominable Snowman," did, in fact, exist — but it was no Snowman, it was a large mountain fox whose peculiar hopping gait left footprints that appeared to be those of a biped.
On the Himalayan expedition, as well, Professor Swan collected numerous specimens and discovered two hitherto unknown species: a unique frog, Rana swani, and a glacier flea, Machilanus swani - both of which had adapted to surviving in one of the earth's most inhospitable environments. They were named in his honor.
These discoveries and others ultimately led to Professor Swan's conception of the "Aeolian Region" - the zone where life reaches its highest limits, supported only by tiny nutrients blown in on the wind.
In 1960, Professor Swan returned to the Himalayas with Sir Edmund Hillary's scientific mountaineering expedition to the Everest area to conduct high-altitude research.
In addition to going on his Himalayan expeditions, he conducted research on the great volcanoes of Mexico, investigated several aspects of African wildlife and made scientific visits to such places as Madagascar, New Guinea, the Celebes, remote Australia, the wild rivers of South America, the Tibetan plateau, Costa Rica and Trinidad and Tobago.
Professor Swan taught at State University for more than 30 years. During his tenure there, he instructed some 20,000 students as a self-proclaimed "ecologist-zoogeographer, anatomist, evolutionary philosopher with entomological, avicultural, botanical, behavioral and molecular biases and an obdurate dreamer."
"He never lost the sense of wonder and childlike enthusiasm he acquired as a curious child explorer in the mountains of his youth," said David Sutton, one of Professor Swan's former graduate students. In his classes, he would enthrall his students with story after story, building on the rich experiences of a truly examined life."
His playful and engaging manner as a scientist-raconteur were perfectly suited for educational television, and in 1958 he originated KQED's first children's science programs. From 1958 to 1967, he produced about 250 live TV programs, reaching more than 600,000 schoolchildren in the Bay Area, Chicago, Miami and other cities, with "the beauties and intellectual challenge of science" through countless stories of bones, bugs, birds and bees.
His whimsical sense of humor also surfaced in a variety of eccentricities. He once "seceded" from the union in a formal letter to the City Council in Redwood City, protesting an order that he replace - at his own considerable expense - his "perfectly adequate and more efficient septic tank" with neighborhood sewer lines. He anointed himself "Raja" of his own autonomous native-state - the Kingdom of Gooch Nahai - meaning "absolute no have" in Hindustani - or the State of Absolutely Nothing.
Fortunately, he made a concession to the government's right of eminent domain and continued to pay his taxes. But that did not stop him from providing Gooch Nahai with everything a small country needs. Gooch Nahai printed its own stamps - an annual philatelic issue containing the image of a forgotten element of natural history. It had a national holiday, June 21, the summer solstice; a national symbol, the extinct Dodo bird; its memorial tomb of the "Unknown Frog," and its 'Great Wall of Gooch Nahai' which contained mementos of global travels and conquests.
Professor Swan led educational expeditions to Africa, South America, Australia, New Zealand, Asia and the Indian subcontinent. His most recent journey to his place of birth provided the postscript to his recently completed book, "Tales of the Himalaya: Adventures of a Naturalist."
The family suggests that contributions in Professor Swan's memory be made to the Himalayan Trust, founded by Sir Edmund Hillary, in support of a Sherpa school in Kathmandu: The Himalayan Trust, c/o Larry Witherbee, 267 Exmoor Avenue, Glen Ellyn IL, 60137.