Dr. John W. Saunders, Jr.

1919 ∼ 2015

Dr. John W. Saunders, Jr.

Dr. John W. Saunders, Jr. passed away peacefully on December 26th at the age of 96. He was the loving husband of Lilyan C. Saunders who died in 2011 and to whom he was married for 69 years.  Born in Muskogee, OK, November 12, 1919, John’s childhood was marked by poverty following a fire which destroyed his father’s barbershop and the family’s sole means of livelihood. John began work at age 8 and by age 13 was working after school from 4:00 to 10:00 PM six days a week. All his wages went to help feed the family.

Although his family had little money, John was to have a bit of luck. An ethic of hard work and his natural intelligence brought him to the attention of a state senator who promised him a job—and therefore the funds for college—if John could teach his son enough French to pass an exam. His success in that endeavor provided the stepping stone to a higher education, first at the University of Oklahoma, Norman, where he received B.S. in zoology in 1940 and a M.S. in 1941 and then at Johns Hopkins University. Enlisting in the Navy in 1943, John served as Lieutenant on the U.S.S. Rocky Mount in the Pacific theater during World War II. At the war’s end he returned to Hopkins to complete his doctorate in zoology in 1948.

Following a post-doctoral appointment at the University of Chicago, John taught at Marquette University in Milwaukee, WI, eventually becoming chairman of the department of biology. After a year at the University of Pennsylvania as professor of anatomy, John was appointed leading professor of biological sciences at SUNY New York in 1967 where he remained until 1985 when he was named professor emeritus.  Summer research and teaching opportunities brought him first to the Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory in Salisbury Cove, ME in 1954 and then to the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, MA where he was a summer investigator from 1958 to 1972 and again from 1995 to 2003. It was in Maine that John and his wife developed a passion for swimming long distances in cold water and in Woods Hole that John became enamored of saltwater fishing, an interest he maintained throughout his life.

John was recognized as an outstanding contributor to the field of developmental biology where his research remains central to understanding of the development of the vertebrate limb. In particular, his studies of a structure known as the apical ectodermal ridge helped identify the role of growth factors in the pattern of the developing limb, and his identification and study of the zone of polarizing activity demonstrated how this area spreads essential information about how surrounding cells are to behave. His early recognition of the role of cell death in development and analyses of feather patterns are also part of his long legacy to scientific understanding. John received many awards during his career, including the Edwin Grant Conklin Medal by the American Society of Developmental Biology in 1996 and the University of Oklahoma College of Arts and Sciences Distinguished Alumni Award in 2007. In 2006, John was elected to the National Academy of Sciences.

During retirement, John was a member and president of the Waquoit Association, a member of the Falmouth Water Stewards (formerly FACES), a Falmouth Town Meeting member and a member of the Town of Falmouth Waterways Committee.

John is survived by his children: Sarah Elizabeth Reeder of Baltimore, MD; Jack Saunders of Mt. Shasta, CA; Maggie Geist of North Falmouth, MA; and Kitty Brown of East Falmouth, MA; his sister, Virginia Lavarine of Fleming Ilse, FL; seven grandchildren, seven great-grandchildren and numerous nieces and nephews. A son, William Michael Saunders, and a grandson, Danny Brown, predeceased him.

A funeral mass will be celebrated on Monday, Jan 4, 2016 at 10:00 in St. Anthony’s Church 167 East Falmouth Hwy, East Falmouth, MA 02536. Burial will follow in the Massachusetts National Cemetery, Bourne at 11:30am.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Marine Biological Laboratory, 7 Water St., Woods Hole, MA, 02543, the Children’s School of Science, P.O. Box 522, Woods Hole MA, 02543 or the Association to Preserve Cape Cod, P.O. Box 398, Barnstable MA, 02630.

Veteran of the navy


Monday, January 4, 2016 | 10:00 AM

St. Anthony’s Church - E. Falmouth
Address & Directions


Monday, January 4, 2016 | 11:30 AM

Massachusetts National Cemetery
Address & Directions


  • Marine Biological Laboratory, 7 Water St., Woods Hole, MA, 02543
  • Children’s School of Science, P.O. Box 522, Woods Hole MA, 02543
  • Association to Preserve Cape Cod, P.O. Box 398, Barnstable MA, 02630

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Dr. John W. Saunders, Jr.

1919 ∼ 2015

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