Dr. Telfer, Biology

Dr. William Telfer, professor of biology for 40 years, passed away on November 6, 2010 after a short illness. He was 86 years old.

Dr. Telfer graduated from Reed College and earned his PhD at Harvard University. After three years as a Junior Fellow at Harvard, Dr. Telfer joined Penn’s department of biology in 1954. He was departmental chair from 1972-76 and named the inaugural Class of 1939 Professor of Natural Science in 1991. Dr. Telfer was a Guggenheim Fellow from 1960-61 at Stanford University, which led to the publication of The Biology of Organisms, co-authored with Donald Kennedy in 1964. Dr. Telfer became an emeritus professor in 1994.

“Dr. Telfer was passionate about insects and an internationally known expert on their biochemistry and physiology,” said Dr. Gregory M. Guild, chair and professor in the department of biology. “He used the beautiful North American giant silk moth (Cecropia) as a model to study egg development. Over the years Dr. Telfer became well known locally and nationally for raising these insects on the cherry trees in his backyard in Media, PA.”

Dr. Telfer’s intellectual engagement with experimental science spanned more than 60 years with his first publication in 1953 and his last publication, a review summarizing 100 years of research about egg formation in Lepidoptera, published in the Journal of Insect Science just last year (www.insectscience.org/9.50/). “Many of us present at departmental research retreats in the early 1980s instantly recognize some of the images in this review,” said Dr. Guild.

Dr. Guild also noted that “Dr. Telfer was a legendary teacher, skilled at introducing freshman to their first biology course as well as opening up the world of developmental biology to biology majors. His 1964 text with Kennedy was an innovative undertaking ‘to convey more effectively and forcefully the intellectual revolution which biology was undergoing’ and ‘to emphasize the uniformities of nature as opposed to its variety’ (from Foreword). This was a farsighted perspective given that it preceded (by two decades!) our understanding that all organisms exhibit remarkable genetic similarities at the molecular level. In his later years at Penn, Dr. Telfer pioneered a Stellar and Organic Evolution course taught with faculty from astronomy, geology and anthropology. “

Dr. Telfer is survived by his daughters, Abby Telfer and Sally Ishizaka; and granddaughter, Katharine Earl.