When John Phillips raised concerns about the effects of DDT and other chemicals on fish, ocean plants and pelicans, the idea that pollutants from the land and air could harm marine life was unexpected and astonishing.

John Phillips close-up portrait

A course developed by John Phillips at Hopkins Marine Station gave undergraduate students an opportunity to experience the discoveries and excitement of research. (Image credit: Courtesy Hopkins Marine Station)

“The damage had been totally unforeseen that could occur in the marine environment,” said Alan Baldridge, who was hired by Phillips as the first librarian at Hopkins Marine Station in 1966. “It became a very large issue nationally and internationally.”

Phillips, a biochemist who ran Hopkins from 1965 to 1972 and spent much of his career studying and raising awareness about the issues of marine pollution, died April 5. He was 84.

After serving for three years in the Navy during World War II at a military hospital in Oakland, Phillips enrolled at the University of California-Berkeley on the GI Bill to study biology.  He earned his bachelor’s degree in 1949 and a doctorate in microbiology and immunology six years later from Berkeley.

A postdoctoral fellowship from the American Cancer Society brought Phillips to Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station for the first time in 1955. His original research interest was in studying the very earliest evolutionary stages of the immune system by looking at cnidarians, a phylum of marine organisms that includes jellyfish and coral.

After a short stint at other institutions, Phillips returned to Hopkins in 1962 when he was appointed as an assistant professor in biology. In 1965, Phillips was named director of the marine station. He held the role until 1972.

“It has come to a point where I want to devote a great deal more time to environmental research,” he told the Monterey Peninsula Herald when he stepped down from the post.

Guardian of marine life

At the time, the issue of ocean pollutants, particularly the synthetic pesticide DDT, had become a pressing national and international issue. Phillips’ research and efforts to raise awareness about the effects of DDT on brown pelicans and other marine organisms had helped lead to the first U.S. ban of the chemical in 1972. The brown pelican was listed as an endangered species in 1970.

In 1969, Phillips sent an open letter to then-Gov. Ronald Reagan, calling for a ban on DDT. The letter, signed by 60 marine scientists from 15 institutions, expressed concern of “wholesale damage to important world fisheries” and warned of the “possible loss of whole categories of animals which play important roles in preserving on the planet an environment favorable to man.”

According to Baldridge, “it was evidence that was gathered at Hopkins by Phillips and others that was able to turn the tide on DDT and get control of some other pollutants.”

The 1972 ban on DDT is cited as the primary reason that the brown pelican population has recovered from the brink of extinction. The bird was removed from the endangered list in 2009.

Phillips continued to study the effects of pollutants, including trace metals, on marine animals until he retired from Stanford as a professor emeritus in 1978.

A devoted teacher

Phillips’ former students and colleagues remember him as a dedicated and conscientious teacher and mentor.

“He was always there as a support and as a resource,” said Vicki Pearce, a former graduate student. “He always put things aside and was ready with whatever question I had.”

Undergraduate teaching at Hopkins was also made strong under his presence. According to Baldridge, “he developed what was a unique approach to teaching undergraduates” with a course called Problems in Marine Biology.

“The course gives juniors and seniors a real chance to experience the discoveries and excitement of research. And Hopkins is one of the very few places that gives them such an opportunity,” Phillips told the Stanford News Service in 1965.

The popularity of Hopkins among undergraduates during Phillips’ directorship played a large role in saving the station during a time of economic uncertainty in the 1970s.

“Most of the faculty there had little interest in Hopkins per se because their own research didn’t require its presence,” Baldridge said. “One of the things that was very important was its great popularity with undergraduate students at the time.”

When he retired, Phillips moved to Hawaii and took up gardening, mastered the Japanese and Hawaiian languages, and joined a halau of male hula dancers. In 1992, he helped rehabilitate orangutans in Borneo, and he continued to travel extensively to the Amazon, Africa, and the South Pacific and Asia. He later divided his time between Hawaii and the Monterey Peninsula, where his son and grandchildren live.

Phillips was predeceased by his wife, Arleen Louise Warren. He is survived by his three children and two grandchildren.

Jess McNally is an intern at the Stanford News Service.