University of California Seal


Grover C. Stephens

Professor of Biological Sciences, Emeritus



Grover Stephens, “Steve” to all who knew him, was one of the founding faculty of the University of California at Irvine. Steve came to UCI in 1964 as the first chair of what was then the Department of Organismic Biology and is now Developmental and Cell Biology. His guidance as department chair and later as dean of biological sciences (1982-1986) was of major importance in the growth of the School of Biological Sciences in both size and prominence.

Steve graduated from high school early during World War II. In 1942 he began an engineering program at Northwestern University, but a year later, with the military draft looming, he left the university and enlisted in the Naval Reserve. After completing basic training, Steve was selected for an officer training program at Purdue University. Under this program he took additional classes at Princeton and Northwestern, after which he was assigned as gunnery officer on an aircraft carrier then under construction. Steve trained gun crews at Virginia Beach, but the war ended before he and his carrier shipped out. Steve was released from active duty in 1946 and discharged, as a Lieutenant (jg), in 1951. His time with the Navy provided Steve with a distrust of the military, many good stories with which later to amuse friends, and support through the GI Bill which allowed him to return to Northwestern as a student.

Steve earned a B.S. in mathematics at Northwestern in 1948 and an M.A. in philosophy in 1949, after which he turned to chemistry and biology. Steve became a Ph.D. student at Northwestern, working with Frank Brown on the control of biological rhythms in crustaceans and other marine organisms. While at Northwestern, Steve married Gwen Jones, whom he had met when she was the teaching assistant in one of his early biology courses. Frank Brown did much of his research at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, and on several summers he brought Steve and Gwen with him to Woods Hole as research assistants. Thus began a long association between Steve and the Woods Hole laboratory.

After receiving his Ph.D. in 1952, Steve accepted an academic position, and a demanding teaching schedule, at Brooklyn College. After a year at Brooklyn College, Steve moved to the Department of Zoology at the University of Minnesota where he remained for the next 11 years before coming to UCI.

In the summer after his year at Brooklyn College, Steve became an instructor in the Invertebrate Zoology course at Woods Hole, one of several summer courses offered by this institution. Each of the courses at Woods Hole was taught by a group of half dozen or so scientists. Steve continued with this course for the next five summers, after which he became director of the course for two years. When he joined the course, Steve was assigned the section dealing with mollusks – the group that includes snails, clams, squids and some less well-known creatures. While developing his lectures, Steve became interested in how clams obtain the nutrients they need for growth and reproduction. He chose to examine the possibility that clams might take up not only plankton, but also dissolved organic molecules from the seawater that they passed over their gills during feeding. Half a century earlier it had been suggested that clams might absorb dissolved organic molecules directly from seawater, but this notion had seemed unlikely and been dismissed. Steve approached the problem using radioactively labeled molecules which were then becoming readily available for research. He found that indeed clams, and many other marine organisms as well, could remove dissolved organic molecules from seawater in amounts large enough to be of nutritional significance. Steve’s work opened up a whole field of research on the role of dissolved organic material in the nutrition of aquatic organisms, a field that has been vigorously pursued ever since by Steve, his students, and many others. The ideas developed by Steve and his students are now firmly entrenched, important concepts in marine biology.

In his research Steve was basically a marine biologist. Minneapolis, where he lived and taught for many years, is about as far from seawater as one can be on the North American continent. Every year, in June, Steve packed his wife, their three children, and his research equipment into a Volkswagen Microbus and headed east to spend the summer in Woods Hole. Certainly one of the attractions of UCI, when he was offered a position there in the early 1960s, was the proximity of the ocean and the opportunity to continue his research program throughout the year. But a larger attraction was the opportunity to participate in the development of a new university, one with no history but with great promise.

Steve’s time at UCI was rich with scientific progress and personal accomplishment. His studies on the uptake of dissolved organic materials by organisms progressed with ever increasing resolution and insight into the underlying mechanisms of nutrient transport. With Barbara North, a former Ph.D. student, he authored a popular biology textbook. In the late 1960s he spent a term as a visiting professor in India as part of a National Science Foundation exchange project whose intent was to introduce greater innovation into the Indian university system. Research trips and sabbatical research expeditions through the 1970s and 1980s took him to England, Denmark, France and New Zealand. In 1977 he married his second wife, Ann Doyle Stephens, who, as a member of the second year class of undergraduates admitted to UCI, was also a UCI pioneer.

Steve enriched the lives of all who knew him. He was an extraordinarily talented person in many areas. He was an effective administrator; noted for his calm approach to problems, for his fairness in making decisions, and for patience while listening to faculty members with problems or complaints. He was an inspiring teacher; organized, clear and intellectually rigorous. His research was perceptive and important, and he will be long remembered in textbooks and reviews for his scientific contributions. He was a talented musician, and he was also a perceptive music listener and critic, one who easily recognized whether a performance was plodding or inspired. As was true for so many facets of his life, his musical interests were quite catholic, ranging from bluegrass to modern chamber music. He was a strong athlete, known during his early days at UCI as a formidable opponent on the squash and racquetball court. Despite all his talents, Steve was never arrogant or disdainful of persons less able than he. He was an unusually accepting and tolerant person, except perhaps in politics where his liberal views were strongly held and defended. Knowing Steve, working with him, and socializing with him, was a great privilege. He is survived by his wife Ann, two children, two grandchildren and many friends, all of whom miss him greatly.

Robert K. Josephson