Nathan “Doc” Riser (1920-2006)
Nathan Wendell Riser, known to his colleagues as “Pete” and to his graduate students as “Doc”, passed away in 2006 at the age of 86. In many ways an old school naturalist, he published on the biology and systematics of dorvilleid, nerillid, protodrilid, and syllid polychaetes of the Gulf of Maine, non-Otoplanid Proseriate turbellarians from the region, and nemerteans from New England and elsewhere.
After serving in the Navy Medical Corps during WWII, he did his PhD (awarded 1949) on tapeworms with Prof. Tage Skogsberg at the Hopkins Marine Station, Stanford University, at a time when American marine biology was coming into full bloom. Ed Ricketts, made famous in John Steinbeck’s book Cannary Row, had recently published “Between Pacific Tides (1939), and was still collecting invertebrates from local tide pools when Doc Riser was a student.
He held various teaching and research positions at the University of Pennsylvania, Fisk University (as Chair of Biology), Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the Marine Biological Laboratory, and the University of New Hampshire before assuming a faculty position at Northeastern University in Boston in 1957, where he served as Chair of the Biology Department.
While teaching invertebrate zoology in New Hampshire during the summers of 1950-1957, he was joined by many prominent colleagues, including Marion Pettibone, who became the Curator at the Smithsonian Institution. For many years he also led collecting expeditions to northern Maine with may leading zoologists including Libbie Hyman. His interest in interstitial polychaetes attracted many European polychaetologists who joined him during his many collecting trips throughout New England.
In 1967, Doc was appointed the founding Director of Northeastern University’s Marine Science Institute (now Marine Science Center) in Nahant, a position he held until his retirement in 1985. While Director, he hosted countless invertebrate zoologists from throughout the world who visited New England to collect specimens and attend conferences. Although worms were his first love, he had a general appreciation for biology, so his friends and colleagues represented many diverse fields. Over the years, he influenced many undergraduate and graduate students who went on to professional careers in medicine and marine biology. His interests were very broad, but he always had a special fondness for polychaetes and nemerteans in particular.
Doc was an advisor to the Stratton Commission on Marine Science, Engineering, and Resources in 1968 under the Johnson Administration. One of the outcomes of this Commission was the establishment of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
After his retirement, Doc Riser continued to conduct his research at the Nahant lab until his death, and he maintained an active correspondence with his students and colleagues. He continued limited fieldwork until his health failed, but he went to his lab nearly every day to work on research papers , and he never lost his enthusiasm for invertebrate zoology. It is appropriate that the Nahant lab is located a short distance from the private summer cottage and marine laboratory of Harvard Professor Louis Agassiz, the founder of American marine biology in the mid-19th century. Agassiz was a pioneer in marine science education, and he promoted the formation of seaside laboratories where students could “study nature, not books”. Like Agassiz, Doc Riser was a teacher, and he used the “Agassiz method” of instruction by introducing students to the beauty of living invertebrates.
[Excerpt from Doc Riser’s obituary, 2006]