Nature Blog Network

Monday, June 9, 2008

Dr. E. Alison Kay

I just received in my inbox this sad news of the passing of Alison Kay. She was professor emeritus at the University of Hawaii and made many numerous contributions to the Malacology, including a huge work on Cowry radulae. I never knew her personally but had corresponded with her very briefly when applying to graduate schools. She was well into retirement at that time and I didn't quite understand what "emeritus" meant! She was very kind and encouraging though and offered suggestions for advisors, letting me know I could email her anytime to ask questions about molluscs. This friend of the invertebrates will be greatly missed but her extensive work will live on for generations.

Dr. Fabio Moretzsohn writes on the Mollusca listserve:

"I am very sorry to report about Dr. E. Alison Kay's passing. I just received news from friends in Hawaii (Wes Thorsson, Regie Kawamoto) that Dr. Kay died this morning at a Hospice facility on Oahu, Hawaii. Her health had been declining in the past few years.

Dr. Kay was well known from her book, Hawaiian Marine Shells (1979), which still remains the bible on marine mollusks for Hawaii and many Pacific islands. She made great contributions to the study of cowries, starting with her Ph.D. dissertation in 1957. One of her last papers on cowries was her Atlas of Cowrie Radulae (with Hugh Bradner, 1996), which illustrated virtually all (but a handful of) species in the family both under the light and scanning electron microscope. Besides her interests in molluscan biology, conservation, and taxonomy of both living and fossil mollusks, Dr. Kay was interested in biographical research, especially on malacologists (e.g. Willian Harper Pease, John Gullick), as well as the early history of Hawaii. She taught a very popular class on the Natural History of the Hawaiian Islands, and edited two books on the subject. She was also the editor of Pacific Science for some 20 years.

She was a Professor of Zoology the University of Hawaii for several decades, and retired in 2000. She continued active for a few more years, but then her health declined. She had had many undergraduate and graduate students; I was her last student, and she was delighted to mentor me in the study of cowries, her "first love". I was lucky enough to have both her and Dr. C.M. "Pat" Burgess (author of The Living Cowries (1970) and Cowries of the World (1985)) as my mentors on
cowries. They met when she was 13 years old and broke a bone (leg?); he was the doctor who treated her. During the many sessions of her treatment, they became friends and she got him interested in shells, and especially cowries. Later, they both went on to study and publish on cowries.

She did pioneering work on micromollusks as indicator species for biomonitoring, which still continues at the University of Hawaii. This biomonitoring project has funded many graduate students, including myself, through its decades of operation. She included and described many micromollusks (I think over 70 new spp., besides many others) in her Hawaiian Marine Shells book. It encouraged many people to look for and study these tiny shells. Someone at the Hawaiian Malacological Society once joked about her book having contributed to many collectors' poor vision (because of studying microshells).

For over 20 years Dr. Kay spent her summers traveling to Europe to visit several museums, and in particular, the British Museum, to conduct research on mollusks."

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