Dr Harley Brown, Professor of Zoology
Harley P. Brown was quiet and unassuming – so much so – that many students (and probably some faculty) were unaware of his roles as a pioneering biologist, influential instructor, and highly-productive researcher. Dr. Brown was a true “invertebrate zoologist” who had experience and expertise with many animals: protozoans, worms, spiders, and several groups of aquatic insects. One of the first biologists to use an electron microscope, he described the anatomy of the flagellum, a whip-like structure that enables so many single-celled organisms to move. He was the first researcher to describe the life histories of mysterious organisms like the black spring planarian, the largest free-living flatworm in North America, and the spongilla fly, a parasite that can only live in rarely-seen freshwater sponges. Later in his career, Dr. Brown developed an interest in the taxonomy of water pennies and riffle beetles, and became known throughout the world as the ultimate authority on these tiny animals that are critically important to ecologists as indicators of water quality. It was these broad interests in zoology, and his approach to their study, that made Dr. Brown not only an effective researcher but an extraordinary teacher.
The teaching style of Dr. Brown was unorthodox to say the least. Instead of working from notes and lecturing, he paged through texts and related personal observations and first-hand experiences with the animals described in the books. Instead of long hours in the classroom, most time was spent in the field collecting specimens and samples, and in the laboratory examining them. Students were not told what to do; they were provided with nets, bottles, and jars, and encouraged to bring anything that interested them back to the classroom for observation and experimentation. It did not matter what they chose to collect because “Encyclopedia Brown,” as he was sometimes referred to, knew pretty much everything about every species that lived in the waters of Oklahoma. As an older man, Harley was an intrepid camper (more so than many of his students) and surprisingly tough. In 1981, while collecting shrimp from temporary pools in the Arbuckle Mountains, he asked a student to drive his Volkswagon bus for him. When the student asked why, Harley calmly turned his head, revealing a nasty gash, and explained that he had fallen off one of the boulders, was worried that he might lose consciousness, but wanted the field trip to continue. That durability was evident, not only in his fieldwork, but also in his productivity.
Dr. Brown’s diverse interests and capabilities enabled him to function at multiple levels in the scientific community. He published articles in a wide range of journals including those which describe the “big-picture,” like Science, to those which are “technique-oriented,” like Transactions of the American Microscopal Society, to those which are “taxonomically specialized” like Entomological News. He was active in national organizations, like the North American Benthological Society, and in regional field meetings of the Oklahoma Academy of Science. He conducted research on campus and at home, during his long and distinguished teaching career and after his retirement. His versatility and success were partly products of his abilities as a scientist and partly his abilities as a communicator. He was the consummate naturalist, interested in all aspects of animal biology, and he was the consummate professor, interested in the work of his colleagues and especially the work of his students. He was respected and loved by all who knew him.
By Jan Jeffrey Hoover, PhD, University of Oklahoma