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In Memory of Robert Savage

President Valerie Smith shared the following in a community message earlier today:

Dear Friends,

With great sadness, I write with the news that Robert E. Savage, Isaac H. Clothier Jr. Professor Emeritus of Biology, died in his sleep on Friday, May 20. The College has lost a beloved teacher, colleague, and mentor who was revered as much for his dignity and wit as for his brilliant teaching and devotion to generations of students.

“Bob Savage’s philosophies on science and education and his sense of fun were a potent combination,” says Rachel Merz, Walter Kemp Professor in the Natural Sciences and Professor of Biology. “His example imbued his younger colleagues with perspectives that still define the Biology Department’s character. In that way he continues to contribute to the training of our current students in ways they, or he, might never guess.”

“Somehow, his passing during honors weekend seems poetic,” says Professor and Department Chair of Biology Amy Cheng Vollmer. “His spirit lives on here in Biology. He left a lasting imprint on us all.”

Savage, 83, was born in Middlebury, Vt. As a young man, he developed a deep interest in science and music, and he pursued both with equal vigor throughout his life. After high school, he graduated from Oberlin College with an A.B. in botany.

The outbreak of the Korean War delayed Savage’s matriculation to graduate school. He was instead drafted and spent his tour at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where he worked as a lab technician in the Research, Virus, and Rickettsial Diseases Department. He later earned an M.S. in botany (1958) and a Ph.D. in cell biology and biochemistry (1963) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

In 1962, Savage joined the biology department at Queens College, City University of New York, where he taught for four years and obtained tenure. In 1967, he came to Swarthmore as the College’s first cell biologist, where he served on the faculty for nearly 30 years, including as department chair from 1976 to 1981. He also enjoyed appointments as a visiting researcher at the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm and at Uppsala University in Sweden from 1970 to 1986.

Savage’s work virtually traces the growth and development of his field, from cell biology’s early days in electron microscopy through cell hybridization to the days of molecular analysis of cell function. He authored and co-authored numerous books and papers, on topics ranging from cell hybrids — the subject of a major monograph he co-authored in 1976 — to the history of botanists Carl Linnaeus and John Bartram.

“He has formed a whole ‘school’ of contemporary cell biologists who can date their interest in the field to him and his courses,” says Scott Gilbert, Howard A. Schneiderman ’48 Professor Emeritus of Biology, who also cites Savage’s “outrageous sense of humor” as deeply influential. “Bob was known for giving phony lectures on April 1, to see how far he could get the class to take notes before they realized that he was actually giving them a pasta recipe or some such thing. He also presented non-traditional views to his students to see if they could find fault with them. He saw science as a way to teach critical thinking.”

“It is now more than 35 years since I took one of Bob’s exams, but I still remember them well,” says David Fisher ’79, professor and chief of dermatology and director of the Melanoma Program at Massachusetts General Hospital's Cancer Center. “Usually, they started with something like ‘You’ve just landed on a distant planet where there is no DNA, but instead there is an odd substance that resembles it. Please describe how its nucleotide components are similar to nickel.’ He is the embodiment of nature’s wonder, which twinkled in his eyes as he described slimy creatures and cells fusing. Most of all, he pushed us to think, to dream, to wonder, about science. The world was a magnificent miracle to Bob, because biology was so deliciously complex.”

Beyond his courses and influence on Swarthmore students, Savage is lauded for shaping and guiding his entire department.

According to Howard A. Schneiderman '48 Professor in Biology Kathy Siwicki, Savage’s teaching philosophy was far ahead of his time. “He believed that it was more important for biology students to understand the scientific process than to memorize countless details about cells,” she says. “By modeling this approach in his courses, he inspired me and many other colleagues to become better teachers and laid the foundations for the guiding principle of today's Biology Department: ‘learning about biology is doing biology.’”

“He was the senior member of the department, along with [recently retired biology professor] John Jenkins, who mentored me in my early years,” Vollmer says. “They set the tone about how to teach introductory biology, giving prospective biology majors and non-majors an historic as well as current perspective.”

“One of the most important of his tenets was that research was part of our teaching mission,” adds Gilbert, who joined the department when Savage was chair and also saw him as a role model. “We should do research because it is the best way of teaching some of our most talented students, but it is not the only way to learn and it is not the only way to teach. The goal of our research was not necessarily to publish but to teach students how to be scientists and to think creatively and critically: to plan and execute experiments and to interpret data, just like the arts.”

For a time in the 1990s, Savage shared his passion for science on Friday afternoons with students at Stetser Elementary School in the Chester Upland School District as part of a program sponsored by the Professional Association of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers to bring more students into science. Given how many people he reached through his various efforts, Gilbert says, “it is difficult to say where his influence ends.”

Upon Savage’s retirement from Swarthmore in 1995, a “Bobfest” symposium in his honor took place where dozens of his former students discussed their research in cell biology. Upon this occasion, during which Savage was described as the “father of modern biology” on campus, students and colleagues established a research fund named for Savage that supports student research in cell and molecular biology. The event also included a classical music concert, including a presentation of the Schumann piano quintet played by cell biologists who had been his students.

An accomplished cellist, keyboardist, and recorder player, Savage performed in classical ensembles, sometimes semi-professionally, including orchestras, early music groups, and chamber music throughout his life. After his retirement from the College, he resumed his cello studies and was an avid concertgoer.

“He was a very musical man,” says Scheuer Family Professor Emerita of Humanities Marion Faber, who knew him as a friend through music. “We played together — he on the cello, me on piano — for many years and it was always a joy to look over at him, especially when he would flash his glorious wide smile. I remember his talent as an actor, his sense of fun, his devotion to his wonderful wife Gisela and their warm home life with its Swedish/New England culture. He really did make the world a better place.”

In 2009, the Biology Department instituted an annual image contest named for Savage. Open to any student who had taken a class in the department, the contest has drawn dozens of submissions from students majoring in nearly every department on campus over the years. (All submissions can be viewed at In the contest’s early years, Savage served as one of the judges, along with Professor of Art Randall Exon and Bennett Lorber ’64, the Thomas M. Durant Chair in Medicine and a professor of microbiology and immunology at the Temple University School of Medicine.

“Bob took the task seriously and was a strong advocate for his choices, but he was more than willing to listen to and consider opposite views,” says Lorber, adding that the time the three spent together are some of his most pleasant memories. “During our deliberations he was always kind, thoughtful, and full of good humor. He had a way of looking at you during a conversation that made you feel he cared deeply about what you had to say.”

“Bob excelled at appreciating the good things in life,” adds Merz. “Once he told me that he felt that part of his recompense from the College was the opportunity to wander through the Arboretum’s lilac collection in the spring and that anyone who didn’t take advantage of it wasn’t getting their full remuneration.”

Savage was married to Gisela Bergau Savage, a former language instructor and Swarthmore, Pa., toy-store owner who predeceased him in 1998. He shared his love for music with her and they made it a central part of their family life. He is survived by their two music-loving children: A. Monica Kruse and her husband Lakota K. Kruse, and Eric D. Savage and his wife Megan J. Juday. He is also survived by four grandchildren: Annika and Elisa Kruse and Elliot and Walter Savage.

A service to celebrate Robert's life will be held on Saturday, June 11, at 10 a.m. in the Swarthmore Friends Meeting House.  A reception will follow the service in the Whittier Room.  

The family suggests that in lieu of flowers, a memorial contribution may be made to the American Swedish Historical Museum:
Valerie Smith

Robert Savage
Robert Savage in the classroom
Robert Savage in the classroom
Robert Savage
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