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Faces of Berkeley: Jim Patton, adventuring professor

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APRIL 18, 2012

UC Berkeley professor emeritus Jim Patton’s desk is nestled comfortably among rows of large gray cases storing hundreds of stuffed and oftentimes exotic creatures that have been carefully studied by researchers at the campus Museum of Vertebrate Zoology.

As a curator at the museum for the last 40 years, the retired professor of integrative biology helps oversee its vast collection of hundred-year-old chipmunks, polar bear pelts and other such biological curiosities.

Yet his true passions lie not at his modest desk in the back of the museum — where he is writing the second volume of a three-volume series on the mammals of South America — but in the various corners of the globe where he has performed much of his research.

And after surviving five shipwrecks, the white-haired yet animated Patton is no ordinary academic.

His first vessel sank in 1966 off the western coast of Mexico when he and the fisherman he was traveling with were caught in a sudden torrential downpour that almost sank their small boat.

“It was a little rowboat with a little motor and instead of getting to the island we were intending to, we stopped at a cove and set up camp,” Patton recalled. “It was wet — really cold, and in the middle of the night the storm got even stronger.”

The rowboat couldn’t handle the extreme weather and crashed against the cove’s rocks, wrecking its tiny motor. The travellers were stuck in the cove with minimal food and water before being rescued by an American fisherman about 10 days later.

“We ate rats,” Patton said, almost fondly. “They have lots of protein.”

Patton’s big break occurred just a year later in 1967, when he published a paper for his master’s thesis in the Journal of Mammalogy which introduced a groundbreaking technique to easily obtain the chromosomes of any animal, eventually becoming a Science Citation Classic.

Most importantly, the paper paved Patton’s path to UC Berkeley. Patton said the head of the museum saw the paper and asked the budding zoologist if he was interested in coming to Berkeley.

“When he was an active faculty, he was very much the heart of the museum,” said Eileen Lacey, an associate professor in the campus Department of Integrative Biology and one of Patton’s coworkers at the museum. “He really was the trifecta of research, teaching and curating.”

Just a few years into his time at UC Berkeley, Patton was shipwrecked again. He was part of a research expedition traveling to Costa Rica, and the group’s boat caught fire and burned to a crisp in the middle of the Pacific.

“We had one of those canisterised life rafts,” Patton said. “It was like being in a kiddie pool in the middle of the Pacific Ocean — (all) 13 of us.”

Around three o’clock the next morning, they were picked up by the flagship of the Mexican merchant marine — a rescue that made headlines in Mexican newspapers.

Patton was shipwrecked three more times, in 1978, 1984 — when he and his wife had to haul their broken vessel about 15 kilometers along a river in southern Peru — and 1992. The final wreck occurred in a river in the Brazilian Amazon, when Patton’s boat hit a submerged log and sank in less than a minute. That time, though, the veteran ship-wreckee knew exactly what to do.

Overcoming trials like these is just one of many reasons Patton is highly respected within the biological community.

“(Patton) is probably … one of the premier mammalogists in North America,” Lacey said.

He does, after all, have an entire genus of rodents named after him. Not to mention a Madagascan snake, a bat and a few other rat species.

“He’s kind of a demi-god in Brazilian mammalogy,” said current museum director Craig Moritz.

Ever appreciative of Patton’s work, Moritz had only one word of warning.

“Whatever you do — don’t get on a boat with him,” Moritz cautioned.

Sara Grossman covers research and ideas.

APRIL 19, 2012

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