The Johns Hopkins Gazette: May 29, 2001
May 29, 2001
VOL. 30, NO. 36


Obituary: Biologist James Ebert, 79, and Wife Alma, Killed in Crash

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette
Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

James D. Ebert, a distinguished embryologist and professor in the Biology Department, and his wife, Alma Goodwin Ebert, died last week from injuries they suffered in a car accident while traveling to their summer home in Woods Hole, Mass.

A memorial service is scheduled for 11 a.m. on Thursday, May 31, in Mudd Hall, Homewood campus.

James Ebert, then director of the Department of Embryology of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, with a colleague in his new lab in Baltimore

The accident occurred on Interstate 95 in Harford County. According to state police, Ebert was a passenger in a car being driven by his wife. Police said their Toyota Camry was in the fast lane about 7:40 a.m. on May 22 when it crossed three lanes of traffic and collided with a Chevrolet van.

James Ebert, who was 79, died a short time later at Franklin Square Hospital. Alma Ebert, who was 78, died about six hours later at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center.

James Ebert was a professor in Arts and Sciences from 1956 to 1978 and a professor of embryology at the School of Medicine during those years. In 1978, he became president of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, a position he held until 1987. He previously had been director of the institution's Department of Embryology, overseeing the department's move from the JHMI campus to a new building located on the Homewood campus. He was a trustee of the institution at his death.

On July 1, 1987, Ebert become the director of the Chesapeake Bay Institute at The Johns Hopkins University and a full professor in the Department of Biology. The Chesapeake Bay Institute, no longer in existence, was dedicated to the study of estuarine, coastal and deep sea oceanography.

He was president of the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass., from 1970 to 1978. Up until his death, Ebert continued his connection with the Woods Hole facility and was deeply involved in its fund-raising efforts. Ebert's wife was a volunteer at the lab, and the two spent summers there.

Born in Bentleyville, Pa., Ebert was a 1942 graduate of Washington and Jefferson College in Washington, Pa., and received a doctorate in experimental embryology from Hopkins in 1950. He taught at MIT and Indiana University before returning to Hopkins in 1956.

He wrote and co-edited several books and was the author of more than 195 professional articles. His scholarly career was primarily spent researching in the field of developmental biology. In recent years, he had concerned himself with science policy and was an active member of the National Academy of Sciences, an organization in which he held several top administrative posts.

Gary Ostrander, associate dean of research in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences and a research professor in the Department of Biology, says Ebert's abilities as an administrator were unmatched.

"What I liked about Jim the best, and it is still hard to believe he is gone, was that he had the ability to quickly assess situations, and [he] was equally adept at assessing the quality of individuals and programs," says Ostrander, whose laboratory was next door to Ebert's office. "A funny characteristic of his is that he would assign grades to an individual's scientific ability--that person is an A+ person or a B- person and so on. Some might find this hard to swallow, but you have to understand, as a scientist he was trained to be very objective. Jim was able to separate personality from ability and prided himself on the careful and critical examination of a topic."

Ostrander, who often sought Ebert's advice on professional matters, says that although Ebert was a distinguished and senior scientist, he lacked any sense of arrogance and was "extremely approachable."

"Jim was always very willing to take the time on any matter," Ostrander says. "He was one of those people here at Hopkins who, although you could say he was not in the prime of his career anymore, really had a lot to offer. He was a very big player at Hopkins some 20 years ago, and it was in your best interest to seek him out. I only regret that we never realized the full potential of his counsel. I fear we don't have too many like him."

Richard E. McCarty, the James B. Knapp Dean of the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, who was a student of Ebert's during his own graduate years at Hopkins, says Ebert was a "wonderful and gifted" teacher who held a deep concern for all of his students.

"He was an exceptional mentor and a great person," McCarty says. "He was part of a very exceptional group of people in Hopkins Biology that made the department that much stronger. I, along with my colleagues, feel a strong sense of loss."

A decorated soldier, Ebert served in the Navy as a lieutenant during World War II. While stationed aboard a destroyer in the Pacific, Ebert was wounded and burned after a kamikaze pilot struck his ship.

The Eberts are survived by a son, David Brian Ebert of Cape Coral, Fla; two daughters, Frances Diane Schwartz of Dublin, Md., and Rebecca Susan Coyle of Owings Mills, Md.; seven grandchildren; and a great-grandson.

Memorial contributions may be made to the Alma and James Ebert Memorial Fund, Marine Biological Laboratory, Water Street, Woods Hole, MA 02543.