The Johns Hopkins Gazette: July 7, 2003
July 7, 2003
VOL. 32, NO. 39


Obituary: Martin Larrabee, Founding Member of Biophysics Department, Dies at 93

By Michael Purdy

Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

Martin Larrabee, a founding member of the Department of Biophysics, has died. Larrabee, 93, studied in detail the function and structure of nerve cells, deriving the bulk of his research support from a single NIH grant that he successfully renewed for 44 years. He died on June 18 of pneumonia.

Martin Larrabee posed with his wife, Sarah, at the 50th anniversary celebration for the Department of Biophysics in 1999.

"Mart was a thoroughly admirable person," reminisced Professor Emeritus Vernon Mountcastle, former director of Neuroscience and a longtime friend of Larrabee's. "He was a leader in the study of the metabolism of neurons, and he chose as his object for study the superior cervical ganglion--both transmission through the ganglion and the metabolic requirements for that activity."

In addition to his achievements in neuroscience, Larrabee's love of the outdoors and hiking led him to make significant contributions to trail building, mapping and maintenance at Gunpowder Falls State Park, Maryland's largest state park. Johns Hopkins students regularly went with Larrabee to Gunpowder Falls to spend their weekends helping him make, clear and map trails.

"I was very fond of the guy because we were both keen mountaineers," said Michael Beer, who was chair of Biophysics when Larrabee retired in 1975. "He just loved the mountains, loved the Alps. He had a collaborator from Switzerland, and that scientist offered him residence in a mountain house, and Mart often went there."

Larrabee earned his doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania in 1937. In 1949, he came from Penn to Johns Hopkins with Detlev Bronk and several biophysicists. Bronk had been appointed president of the university, and the cadre of biophysicists he brought with him became the informal Department of Biophysics. Initially, Larrabee and the others were housed on the East Baltimore campus, and that was where Larrabee met lifelong friend Kenneth Zierler, a physiologist at the School of Medicine.

"I'll miss Martin's good humor," said Zierler, professor emeritus of medicine and physiology, from his home in Martha's Vineyard. "He was a terrific guy."

Zierler remembered meeting Larrabee when a student accidentally flooded the latter's laboratory sink. Larrabee's lab was directly above Zierler's, so Larrabee made sure that he was waiting with a bar of soap, a towel and a good-humored apology when Zierler came in the next morning.

Zierler and Larrabee became such good friends that for the rest of their lives they read each other's research papers prior to submission, offering each other comments and feedback.

"Mart really introduced micro-methods to the neurosciences--working with small quantities to allow the study in detail of the metabolism of a single nerve cell," Zierler said.

Larrabee and the other biophysicists moved to the Homewood campus when Jenkins Hall was formally dedicated in 1950. The new building contained a special system of glass pipes for supply of deionized water, an essential for many of the scientists' research programs.

"This was considered a significant innovation, a real convenience, and Mart was meticulous about keeping [the system] in good condition," Beer remembered. "One April 1, some students decided to put in a piece of glass tubing, blocked at both ends, and put water and a pair of goldfish in it and mounted it so it looked like it was part of the system. When Mart came in and saw it, he blew his top, but later he laughed at the joke," Beer recalled.

Bronk and the other biophysicists left Johns Hopkins for Rockefeller University in 1954, but Larrabee elected to stay, and spent the rest of his academic life at Hopkins.

Mountcastle speculated, perhaps half in jest, that it might have been Larrabee's love of the outdoors that prompted his decision. "He may have stayed because he liked to hike on the trails here and didn't want to go to New York City," Mountcastle said.

Beer later introduced Larrabee to downhill skiing, an activity Larrabee liked so much that he kept at it until sometime in his 80s, when a heart doctor forbade him to travel to high altitudes.

Larrabee was required to retire in 1975 at the age of 65, but he kept up his research, regularly renewing his single NIH grant, until 1998. He was named professor emeritus the following year.

Larrabee attended and spoke at a special 50th anniversary celebration for the Department of Biophysics in 1999.

"It was just amazing to think of it--there at the founding and there again 50 years later," said Jerry Levin, Biophysics administrator.

"Mart was a genuine Down-Easter--a straight, honest, direct-talking person devoted to research and teaching, and a wonderful colleague, " Mountcastle added.

Larrabee was a member of the National Academy of Sciences, served as treasurer for the Society for Neuroscience from 1970 to 1975 and received an honorary doctorate from the University of Lausanne in 1974.

Larrabee was married to Barbara Belcher, who died in 1996. Two years later, when he was 88, he married Sarah Galloway. Larrabee is survived by his second wife, two sons, a stepson, two stepdaughters, six grandchildren and two great grandchildren.

The family's memorial service was held June 27. Levin said that a departmental memorial service will likely be held in September.