by William Carrington
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4
Kimila Johnson-Zucker and Abram Zucker-Johnson were a wife and husband pair of professors that made important contributions to marine biology and Latin hermeneutics, respectively, in the 1990s and 2000s.
(This is a joint entry for Kimila Johnson-Zucker and Abram Zucker-Johnson. For information on their earlier lives, see separately Kimila Johnson-Zucker and Abram Zucker-Johnson.)
The two professors moved from Rice University in Texas to the University of California-San Diego in 1992, initially as assistant and full professors. They later both became university professors and then Regents’ professors and then Regents’ Chairs of their respective departments.
They purchased a new, modern house in the style of Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House, except with modernist colors that were adapted from the early paintings of Victor Vasarely. The house had a flat, gravel roof and was assembled from glass and aluminum panels that were inserted into a frame of aluminum beams.
The house had a second-floor porch with views of the ocean and the southern Channel Islands. A picture from the era shows a sunset over the ocean with the Johnson-Zucker and Zucker-Johnson holding hands in the foreground as they sit on chairs on the porch, wineglasses in their other hands.
Also on the porch is Roscoe, a Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever that Zucker-Johnson brought back for Johnson-Zucker after attending a philology conference in Goose Bay, Labrador. She loved the dog and taught it to retrieve grunion from the beach during the full moon. Johnson-Zucker made a grunion and bacon scrapple that was widely admired among their friends and that was often served in the morning after all-night games of charades and Diplomacy.
Johnson-Zucker’s research at this stage of her career focused on the life cycle of the Channel Island abalone, an endemic sea snail (haliotidae insulare) much larger than the standard abalone (haliotidae esaleniensis) found in the waters off of Big Sur, 300 miles north. Fossil remains and the oral tradition of Channel Island aboriginals — transcribed by ethnologists that traveled with the first whaling boats to visit California waters in the 1830s — indicated that the abalone had been a staple of human diet in the islands for centuries.
But overfishing in the early part of the 20th century by Portuguese fisherman operating out of Long Beach led to a crash in the Channel Island abalone population except for a small population that continued to survive on the southern tip of San Clemente Island. The abalone decline led to a concomitant fall in the sea otter population, an animal that had previously lived almost exclusively on abalone.
Johnson-Zucker first became interested in the Channel Island abalone during a charter fishing expedition with Zucker-Johnson. The two took a two-day trip on a 56-footer out of San Diego helmed by Dick Ricketts, the heir to the Pacific Biological Laboratories fortune.
The ocean was rougher than usual on the first day but, as an experienced deckhand from his days on Lake Superior, Zucker-Johnson was not affected by motion sickness. Johnson-Zucker, however, was quite ill for the first 18 hours. He shaved chips off ice from the fish locker and laid them on her forehead, dabbing the melted water up with a silk handkerchief and gently massaging her clavicles.
Johnson-Zucker felt better and said in her Bivalve interview that she never felt seasick again. They watched schools of flying fish sail in the air for hundreds of yards to escape predatory bonitos.
Johnson-Zucker’s first foray into abalone research was the seminal “Reproduction of Abalone, Sea Cucumbers and Other Members of Mollusca Gargantua in the Channel Islands.” It was published in Nature in 1993 and was the subject of some controversy. In particular, plagiarism charges were brought against Johnson-Zucker by a team of marine biologists from Christchurch University in New Zealand that had published similar work in the obscure antipodean journal Russell Wallace.
The dispute arose as to whether Johnson-Zucker had properly cited the New Zealand teams’ work on tuataras, an endemic New Zealand lizard that occupies an ecological niche in certain New Zealand islands that is similar to that which the sea otter occupies in the Channel Islands and the effects of the tuataras’ predation on local shellfish populations, particularly the tuangi cockle (austrovenus stutchburyi).
The academic board appointed by the University of California arrived at an initial finding of academic misconduct, which could have led to Johnson-Zucker’s dismissal, but she was subsequently cleared of all charges in an appeals hearing. A crucial moment in the hearing arose when Johnson-Zucker pointed out that the impact of the Coriolis Effect on the anatomy of molluscs was reversed in the southern hemisphere and that, as a result, all southern-hemisphere molluscs are right-handed, quite different from the left-handed molluscs that are endemic to the northern hemisphere.
This claim served to both clear Johnson-Zucker in the plagiarism case and to launch much of her work on handedness in molluscs and other asymmetric organisms such as flounders, sole and halibut.
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The Zucker-Johnsons adopted two sisters in the mid-1990s: Sophie (b. 1995) and Christina (b. 1997). In part motivated by a desire to expiate the perceived sins of her father, they adopted both girls from an orphanage in Rabaul, a city on the island of New Britain that is politically attached to Papua, New Guinea. Both children were of local and Japanese parentage and were, in some tellings, the descendents of Japanese admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, whose troops ran a large brothel in Rabaul during World War II.
The admiral died when his plane was shot down by American P-38’s shortly after taking off from Rabaul in 1943. The flight path of the Yamamoto plane was uncovered by U.S. Navy cryptographers who had broken the encryption code used by the Japanese navy.
Unlike some of the nearby Solomon Islands, leprosy was not common in Rabaul. The girls’ parents had been killed in the 1994 explosion of the caldera adjacent to Rabaul. The girls — though not their parents — were evacuated to Port Moresby when advance warnings of seismic activity were received.
The girls were trained in music from an early age, with Sophie concentrating on the koto, a Japanese harp, and Christina playing the balalaika. They took lessons from Dimitri Toyota, a Russian emigrant who had been raised on Sakhalin Island and was an expert on Russo-Japanese folk music.
In 2005, the girls composed and recorded what is now a well-known piece of Japanese chamber music, in the Hokkaido tradition, entitled “On the 100th Anniversary of the Battle of the Tsushima,” complete with smashing tympanis that echoed the sounds of Admiral Togo’s shells exploding upon the Russian fleet.
In 2007, at the ages of 12 and 10, they performed with the visiting Tokyo Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Seiji Ozawa at the San Diego Symphony Hall program dedicated to Far Eastern folk music.
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Copyright © 2015 by William Carrington