In Memoriam: John Cairns, University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Environmental Biology
November 10, 2017
John Cairns Jr., a University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Environmental Biology, died Sunday, Nov. 5, in Blacksburg. He was 94.
Cairns joined the faculty of Virginia Tech in 1968, having previously worked as curator of limnology at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia from 1948 to 1966, and then a professor of zoology at the University of Kansas from 1966 to 1968.
At Virginia Tech, he taught more than 20 courses, ranging from protozoology, limnology, ecotoxicology, restoration ecology, ethics in science, hazard evaluation, and ecosystem risk analysis. He chaired or co-chaired more than 70 graduate committees, most at Virginia Tech. He also spent portions of every summer from 1961 to 1994 teaching at either the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory or at the University of Michigan Biological Station.
His research in what is now the Department of Biologiocal Sciences, part of the College of Science, focused primarily in ecotoxicology, ecological restoration, protozoan community dynamics, and, for more than 20 years of his career, sustainable use of the planet. Cairns retired from Virginia Tech in 1995 as director of the University Center for Environmental and Hazardous Materials Studies.
In 1991, Cairns was named to the National Academy of Sciences and received the Virginia Lifetime Achievement in Science Award. He also was an elected member of the American Philosophical Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a foreign member of the Linnean Society of London, and received the U.S. Presidential Commendation for Environmental Activities, among many other honors and awards.
In retirement, Cairns continued to be a prolific writer of books and peer-reviewed journal articles. Among the books was the online "Goals and Conditions for a Sustainable World," the second edition of "Ecotoxicology," and "Eco- and Sustainability Ethics and An Odyssey through Stressed Ecosystems: A Continuing Scientific Detective Story." In all, he authored close to 1,800 articles and solely wrote, edited, or contributed to 65 books.
Cairns also spent part of his retirement continuing leisure activities and hobbies, such as hiking, folk dancing, fishing, and swimming.
Found on his personal website in a biographical sketch was this statement by Darla Donald, Cairns’ assistant for 40 years: “[He] lived and portrayed a life that reflects Mother Theresa’s message and that of his Quaker heritage: ‘Live simply so others may simply live.’”
The biography continued, “Internationally, [Cairns was] revered for his contributions to ecotoxicology, for his seminal work in ecological restoration, and for his renowned work in protozoology and microbial ecology and their application to environmental problems.”
“Dr. Cairns was my mentor,” said William T. Waller, a University of North Texas Regents Professor Emeritus. “I was a Ph.D. student of Cairns’ at the University of Kansas. One day, I was working in the lab and Dr. Cairns entered and announced he was moving to Virginia Tech, and he wanted me to move with him. I was pretty shocked and went home to tell my wife. We started looking through all the information we could find on Virginia Tech. Like where in the heck is Blacksburg, Virginia? We arrived at Virginia Tech in 1968, the year before Derring Hall was completed, along with fellow graduate students, Kenneth L. Dickson, Richard Sparks, Guy Lanza, and Jeanne Ruthven, all of whom received their Ph.D. degrees under Dr. Cairns’ tutelage. My experiences at Virginia Tech under Dr. Cairns’ were better than I could have ever imagined. We will miss him.”
Cairns earned a bachelor’s degree from Swarthmore College and master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Pennsylvania, and completed a postdoctoral course in isotope methodology at Hahnemann Medical College of Philadelphia. He served in the U.S. Navy during World War II.
He was preceded in death by his wife, Jean Ogden Cairns, and is survived by four children, Karen Cairns, Heather Cairns Chambers, Stefan Cairns, and Duncan Cairns, and several grandchildren.