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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Saturday, January 8, 2005

Hampton L. Carson, noted UH researcher

By Beverly Creamer
Advertiser Education Writer

Hampton L. Carson, whose work in evolutionary genetics with native Hawai'i drosophila flies brought him international recognition, died Dec. 19 at the age of 90.

Hampton Carson

Carson, a professor emeritus of genetics and molecular biology at the University of Hawai'i, retired in 1985, the same year he was honored with the prestigious Joseph Leidy Medal from the National Academy of Science, to which he was elected in 1979. The award honored his research into Hawai'i drosophila flies and their adaptation to island ecosystems.

"He was one of the major architects of our current understanding of evolutionary biology," said Allen Allison, vice president for science at Bishop Museum. "He recognized the importance of Hawai'i as a natural laboratory of evolution, and studied the diversification of native Hawaiian fruit flies to understand the mechanisms of evolution."

Carson's association with UH began in 1963 as a visiting professor and participant in the Hawaiian Drosophila Project, a cooperative venture between the University of Texas and Hawai'i to study the state's 600 unique species of fruit flies. In 1970 he was appointed a professor of genetics at Manoa in the department of entomology, where he stayed until his retirement.

According to material from the American Philosophical Society, after Carson studied the population genetics of eight species of endemic fruit flies, he proposed that speciation in the Islands was tied to the formation of new islands, with new species being slightly different than those in the nearest island and progressively more different than those in more distant islands.

UH professor Terry Lyttle, who has also spent a lifetime in the study of a smaller fruit fly, called Carson "one of the giants in the field of evolutionary biology at a time when there weren't many people working in this area."

Lyttle said Carson was also a genuinely nice guy, who often took visiting scientists under his wing and made arrangements for their field study on other islands. He and his wife gave the university their second home to use as a research station in the fern forest area of Kilauea.

"Most states with this kind of evolutionary history would have a research station funded by the state somehow for visiting faculty to study Hawaiian biology, but historically there hasn't been such a thing," said Lyttle. "For many years Hamp Carson was the dispersing point. They came to him and he made the arrangements."

Carson also played a part in the 1973 discovery of the rare native po'ouli bird in the Hanawi area of Maui, said close friend Robert Pyle, a retired meteorologist.

Carson was also known for his interest in bonsai culture.

He was born in November 1914 in Philadelphia. He began his career as a member of the faculty of Washington University in 1943 after studying zoology at the University of Pennsylvania where his great-grandfather, Joseph Carson, had been a professor of botany.

He is survived by his widow, Meredith; and sons, Joseph and Edward Carson.

A memorial service is planned for noon Wednesday at Jefferson Hall at the East-West Center.

Reach Beverly Creamer at bcreamer@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8013.