In the late 1930’s , Dr. John W. Saunders began his studies in biological sciences at Oklahoma University where he earned a bachelors and masters degree in zoology. Upon completing his masters degree, he applied to Duke, Johns Hopkins, and Harvard. Accepted by all three, he chose Hopkins primarily because they offered him the most money. Dr. Saunders went to Hopkins in 1941 where he began studies in the lab of Dr. Willier the department head and a leading expert in the filed of developmental biology. However, from 1943 to 1945, his studies were interrupted by WW II. On his return to Hopkins in January of 1946 he began research that lead to the recognition of the importance of the Apical Ectodermal Ridge (AER) in limb development. Dr. Saunders obtained his Ph.D. degree from Hopkins in 1948 after which he spent a one year postdoc in the lab of Dr. Paul Weiss at the University of Chicago. That job paid a stipend of $3,500 and in addition to research, he was coordinator of the teaching program in Developmental Biology. For primarily financial reasons, in 1949 Dr. Saunders left the Weiss’ lab after one year and took a job in the Department of Biology at Marquette University. Dr. Saunders related in an interview with Dr. John Fallon (Int. J. Dev. Biol. 46: 853-861, 2002) that he came to Marquette as the University was willing to lend him money for the down payment on a house, pay his moving expenses, and give him much higher salary than he had in Chicago. As it turns out, that was a very important University investment as Dr. Saunders went on to not only develop an international reputation, but established research as an important and valued component of the job for department faculty at MU.
At Marquette, Dr. Saunders continued his work on AER, conducted analytical studies of feather patterns, and began work which lead to the discovery of the importance of programmed cell death in normal development. The latter lead to an important paper published in the journal Science entitled “Death in Embryonic Systems:Death of cells is the usual accompaniment of embryonic growth and differentiation” (Sci 154: 604-612, 1966). From this work, Dr. Saunders concluded that death of cells, tissues, organ, and organ systems are programmed as normal morphological events in development, and as such death in embryonic systems may be explored within the same conceptual framework as growth and differentiation.
In 1958, Dr. Saunders became chair of the Biology at Marquette, and remained in that position until he left Marquette for a position in the Department of Anatomy, School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. During his tenure as Department chair, our current facility (the Wehr life Sciences Building) was constructed, and the undergraduate curriculum transformed from traditional offerings in botany and zoology to a boarder biology curriculum including genetics, experimental embryology, immunology, and ecology. Many of these disciplines remain emphases in today’s curriculum.
Perhaps Dr. Saunders most important contribution to the department and university was his emphasis on research and the importance of the teacher/scholar at Marquette. He lead by example being an outstanding teacher and researcher. John Fallon in his article on Dr. Saunders states “Beyond these things known to nearly everyone (where he is referring to Dr. Saunders research accomplishments) there is John’s role as teacher that is equally impressive. His one-on-one style, in small groups or from the podium is engaging, encompassing, and above all else, enthusiastic about the study of the development of living things.”
In 1967 Dr. Saunders was appointed Leading Professor of Biological Sciences at SUNY Albany. A position he held until 1985 when he was named Professor Emeritus. Since his retirement, Dr. Saunders continued to teach as a faculty member in the Embryology Course at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole. In 1996, he was awarded the prestigious Conklin Award by the Society of Developmental Biology, and in 2006 he was elected to The National Academy of Sciences, an achievement, considered one of the highest honors in American science and engineering.