Obituary: John F. Hanson, Professor Emeritus of Entomology

February 28, 2014
John F. Hanson

John F. Hanson, 98, alumnus and professor emeritus of entomology, died Sept. 15, 2013 in Traverse City, Mich.

Born in Medford, he received his B. S. (1937), M. S. (1938), and Ph. D. (1943) in entomology from Massachusetts State College, now UMass Amherst.

He was a student of both the prolific insect taxonomist Charles Paul Alexander and the distinguished insect morphologist Guy Chester Crampton, and specialized in the morphology and systematics of the insect order Plecoptera or stoneflies.

In actuality, however, he had two parallel but somewhat different careers. His older brother, an MIT engineering graduate, and an employee with Raytheon Manufacturing Company in Waltham, got him involved with the company. Prior to World War II, Hanson worked at Raytheon during the summers to help with the expenses of raising a family. During the last three years of the war he worked full-time as a Magnitron production engineer. Although not formally trained as an engineer, his ability to examine problems from many different perspectives led to saving Raytheon production time, space as well as millions of dollars in costs. These efforts led him to being named in 1946 as a magnetron development engineer and in that capacity he invented and developed the cermet cathode which was central to the operation of the high-wattage magnetron that served the radar network of that time. The magnetron is also the heart of the “Radarange” or microwave oven and when its inventor, Percy Spencer, retired, he recognized Hanson’s contributions by presenting him with his personal office desk. After leaving full-time employment at Raytheon, Hanson continued to work for the company as a consultant and in this role conducted critical surveys and technical analyses of certain nonproductive research divisions and made suggestions for corrective measures and administrative changes.

Later, Hanson and his wife Marie founded and operated the Ace Filament Company which for more than two decades provided engineering consulting, inventing, and manufacturing services for Indelco, Ceramic Coating Incorporated, Optical Micro Systems, Tesla Engineering and Raytheon. One of the company’s tungsten projects was used in the space program and now sits on the moon. In 1991, more than 10 years after he retired from his engineering and academic pursuits, Raytheon invited him back for ceremonies surrounding the visit of President George H. W. Bush.

However, the study of stoneflies remained his first calling. While still a graduate student, his first paper, “Studies on the Plecoptera of North America I”was published. And in 1945, he was a successful recipient of a Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship for the study of this insect group. His published doctoral dissertation, “Comparative Morphology and Taxonomy of the Capniidae (Plecoptera)”stands as an authoritative contribution to the phylogenetic and taxonomic relationships of the genera within this family.

In 1947 he returned to the university as assistant professor and ultimately advanced to full professor. “Doc,” as he was affectionately known, taught courses in evolution, insect morphology, taxonomy, and forest entomology. His teaching was punctuated with his expertise in genetics, physics and his advocacy of evolution as a universal operational principle that underlies and connects both the inorganic and organic realms. Generations of students will recall learning the acronym HUSP – Hanson’s Universal Principle of Progress. In the classroom, he had a knack of simplifying complex concepts through visually insightful examples. Students in his insect morphology course working late at night in the laboratory found it common for Hanson to drop by to see if they needed assistance. He was approachable both in and outside the classroom. His door was always open and in his office one could always find his class or thesis students discussing evolutionary, entomological or other topics of interest.

During this time, aided by grants from Sigma Xi and the National Institutes of Health, he published a number of papers on stoneflies. These studies were based on numerous field-collecting trips in eastern and western North America. The line drawings that accompanied each paper were always skillfully and carefully crafted to depict the diagnostic characters that readily distinguished the relevant taxonomic groups. Several papers reflected his interest in thoracic sternal plate morphology and what it could inform about stonefly relationships. Occasionally his engineering proclivities would show up and articles appeared on such diverse topics as improving and accelerating KOH clearing of specimens, a foot-focusing device for the stereomicroscope, a dripless dispensing bottle, and trays for filing and storing liquid preserved specimens.

He co-authored a bibliography of stonefly papers to supplement the earlier published Claassen catalog and authored a bibliography of entomology papers published by the entomology department through 1955 for department’s annual yearbook. Many of his research papers appeared in the Bulletin of the Brooklyn Entomological Society,where he served for a number of years as editor. Upon his retirement from the university in 1980, Hanson’s Plecoptera collection with its types and many thousands of specimens was provided to the Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian Institution. The species patronym Isogenoides hansoni and the generic patronym Hansonoperla also honor his contributions. In 2011, at the age of 96, he was named as a recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award by the International Society of Plecopterists.

In retirement he continued to work on various engineering-related projects as well as a book about his views concerning a universal system of evolutionary progress. When Hanson was a very young man he wrote the following life objectives in his diary: “To do everything as best I can; to teach college; to travel and collect insects; to be active in sports; to live 100 years in perfect health.”

“It is a tribute to his drive, energy, and love of life that he accomplished the first four of these, and just barely missed the last one, written when life expectancy was approximately 62 years, by a mere 19 months,” writes his daughter, Trina Ball.

He leaves his daughters Trina Ball, Patricia Joiner and Phyllis Pankow and their spouses, seven grandchildren, 13 great-grandchildren and numerous nephews, nieces, colleagues, students and loyal friends.