Hamline Biology Professor Ellis Wyatt (1930-2005) brought infectious curiosity to the classroom, laboratory, and field outings he led.
From the beginning of his time at Hamline, Wyatt knew that his goals matched those of the University, where professors were expected to continue their research, but without compromising the excellent of their teaching. Obligations to students, he said, always came first. Wyatt also put energy into faculty-student research, balancing the demands of a committed professor and the obligations of an involved faculty member. Even after his retirement, he believed in the importance of training young people to understand and fight for the natural world, and he remained proud that the environmental studies program that he helped establish in shortly after the first Earth Day in 1970.
Wyatt was born at the beginning of the Great Depression and spent his early years on a farm in Norton, Kansas, during the period known as the Dust Bowl. Severe drought and unsustainable farming practices led millions of people to lose their farms to the banks, and his family, too, lost everything. He remembered looking back at what had been their home as they drove away. They were eventually able to start over on a farm in Nampa, Idaho, and his parents ran it successfully until they retired in the 1970s. At age 18, Wyatt enlisted in the Navy and served in Korea, Guam, and Point Barrow, Alaska. He suffered a debilitating injury during his service, which ended his ambition to return to farming. He found new ambition from important mentors and made his way to Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon, which demonstrated for him the value of a liberal arts education. He worked as a disease specialist for the Oregon Fish Commission while pursuing a masters degree at Oregon State University. He taught at Central Oregon College, continued to work for the state, then began a Ph.D. program, all the while exploring and leading field courses in the wilderness areas of the Cascade Mountains and along the Deschutes River. His Ph.D. advisor calculated the cost of every hour in the classroom and priced the value of the education using the “tuition meter.” Wyatt took all of these experiences with him when he took the faculty position at Hamline in 1971.
Wyatt taught microbiology, comparative anatomy, organismic form, and ecology. He served as department and division chair, as an advisor to students and to Tri Beta Science Biological Honorary Society. He shared with students his deep ecological values, which he attributed to his experiences living in the tropics, in the Arctic, and on a high desert. His concerns about the ever-increasing destruction of the environment motivated much of his teaching. He developed specific courses around global concerns and also wove these themes into whatever topics he was teaching, recognizing that environmental degradation and associated stress almost always co-existed with other biological issues, such as disease outbreaks. Throughout his distinguished career as a scientist and educator, his passion for protection and care of the natural world inspired colleagues, students, and members of the larger community.
Wyatt’s luckiest students were those who accompanied him to Bodega Bay, California, for a January course studying marine biology. He reflected on that course: “What early mornings! What long days! What an enjoyable way to better know the students! What a beautiful setting and what a unique experience.” His other great joy in working with student advising students aspiring to enter one of the medical professions. Those students who secured a letter of recommendation from him had a 100 percent admission record to medical school. He did not write letters for those who would not be likely to earn admission, and he wrote strong supportive letters for those who would.
Wyatt took great pride in his teaching, because the success he found there were not his own. Rather, he believed he was passing on what he had learned from his parents, his teachers, and his own mentors, and the achievements of his students validated his life and work.
Later in life, he met and married a public school English teacher who shared a love of nature. In retirement, they enjoyed traveling, hiking, golfing, and volunteering at the Maplewood Nature Center.