Lawrence Cory: Present at the Creation

Lawrence Cory in the field with a newt on his armAs an evolutionary biologist, Lawrence Cory takes a long-term view of things. This not only applies to his work tracing amphibian genetics, but also to his relationship with the Saint Mary’s campus in Moraga. Cory is among the few who have watched it grow from an uninhabited marshland to the beautiful College of today. 

As a student in the 1930s, a Brother in the 50s and 60s and a member of the science faculty since the early 50s, Cory has seen Saint Mary’s from every perspective. He has spent most of his 89 years teaching in the College’s classrooms, tinkering in its laboratories and searching for salamanders in its marshes.

It is no exaggeration to say that he was present at the creation — the 1927 groundbreaking, to be exact. That spring, a 10-year-old Cory and his father took the train from Oakland out to the ceremony. The Corys were big Saint Mary’s football fans — as were many Bay Area Irish Catholics, who were proud when the "Galloping Gaels" beat Cal for the first time in 1926.

“When my father heard they were opening the new campus, he wanted to be there for it,” Cory recalls. “But when we got there, there wasn’t a house in sight. There was a lot of dead grass on the hills and cattle grazing all around.”

The campus has grown substantially in the 80 years since cows outnumbered students, and Cory witnessed much of the change firsthand. An admirer of the Brothers’ work, he entered the novitiate when he was 13. He started attending Saint Mary’s in 1935, but before he graduated the Lasallians sent him on his first mission — teaching high school in San Francisco.

Cory threw himself into the assignment with the vigor that his students and colleagues have come to know so well. In a decade at Sacred Heart, he taught physics and algebra, was athletic director and even drove the school bus. He also took classes at UC Berkeley, receiving his bachelor’s in biology in 1942. After earning a doctorate from Notre Dame in 1952, he returned to Saint Mary’s to teach biology, and he’s been here ever since.

“For a long time, Larry was the Biology Department at Saint Mary’s,” colleague Allan Hansell says. “He taught every course, and even after the department hired new people, many of the courses were still his in the sense that he designed them. He’s done an amazing amount of work building up the curriculum.”

In his 60 years on the faculty, Cory’s office moved from trailers behind the power plant to the state-of-the-art Brousseau Hall. Meanwhile biology, with its genome maps and molecular analysis, differs vastly from Cory’s college days when penicillin had just been discovered.

Cory has played a role in some important scientific advances occurring in his lifetime. While researching the fruit fly population in the Sierras during the 1960s, he noticed that the flies’ genetic mutations correlated with concentrations of a new pesticide, DDT. As evidence about DDT’s harmful effects on animals mounted, Congress turned to scientists for advice, and in 1970 the Environmental Protection Agency summoned Cory to Washington to testify.

“Scientists’ work on DDT, including my work on DDT distribution in the Sierras and its relationship to chromosomal changes among fruit flies, led to Congress’ decision to ban DDT,” Cory says. “That’s something I’m particularly proud of today. The ban has been so successful that birds such as the bald eagle and peregrine falcon no longer need special protection.”

Cory’s work on DDT ultimately led him to different pesticides’ effects on amphibians such as the California newt, which drew him back to his first scientific discoveries.

“I remember when I was 7 or 8 splashing around in the creek that ran through our property in Oakland. I found a jelly-like mass that was full of salamander eggs,” Cory says. “When I moved it in my hand, the eggs within gel would all rotate at the same time, and that fascinated me. Today, I’m still doing research on that same type of salamander.”

After eight decades, Cory knows the California newt better than anyone. He is the first person to suspect it might be two distinct species and is conducting DNA examinations to find out. He’s mindful that the model of DNA, a staple of biology classes for decades, had just appeared when he began teaching at Saint Mary's.

“In my first year, scientists still did not know that DNA was the genetic material responsible for heredity. That came a year later."

Cory’s ability to keep up with genetics and other scientific revolutions dazzles his colleagues.

“He truly believes a scholar is more than a teacher, and that’s enriched the department,” Professor Carla Bossard says. “He keeps himself up to date by reading all the journal articles — not just about his own research, but on all the hot topics in science.”

In March, Cory was honored as Professor of the Year, and, true to form, the topic of his acceptance speech reflected his interest in observing change over time — the dramatic shift in the status of women at the Saint Mary’s. When he was a student, there were not only no women students, there were no women on the faculty or in administration. He recalled that when the Brothers’ Superior General visited in 1948, the few women who worked on campus were asked to stay home.

“There wasn’t just a neglect of women on the part of the Church and the College, but an active dislike” says Cory, who in 1970 was on the College’s Board of Trustees that voted to admit women. “Now, two-thirds of the students and half the faculty are women.”

Mary Englert ’75, one of Cory's first female students, remembers conducting experiments with Cory on the heredity of fruit flies’ eye color during her undergraduate days. When she came up with unusual results, she worried that Cory might blame her for not doing the experiment correctly. Instead, he immediately began re-examining the data and eventually reformulated his hypothesis.

Englert recently accompanied him on a salamander-searching expedition at Baby Bottle Pond and notes that he still dons hip waders and dives right in.

“It is inspiring to witness that his level of enthusiasm and curiosity about his subject matter has not waned,” she says.