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Impact Magazine

A Tribute to Lee Braithwaite

Our Counselor, Friend, and Role Model

LEE BRAITHWAITE walked out of his Utah high school for the last time, jumped into an old automobile, and drove west until he saw the ocean. An avid reader of John Steinbeck’s novels, young Lee was inspired by Steinbeck’s friend, a revolutionary marine biologist named Ed Ricketts, who was often written into Steinbeck’s stories as a side character. Monterey, California, is home to the lab where Ricketts worked, fictionalized in Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, one of Braithwaite’s favorite books. The dilapidated lab still stands, but today it is known as Hopkins Marine Station.

The teenage Lee strode into the lab and up to the secretary working at the front desk. Lee had no money, a car falling apart at the curb, and a fresh-off-the-press high school degree. Unbeknownst to him, he was arriving in the middle of a semester. “I want to be a marine biologist,” he declared.

Lee Braithwaite was well-known for his detailed drawings in colored chalk. Photo courtesy of Craig Young.
Photo by Craig Young. Lee Braithwaite was well-known for his detailed drawings in colored chalk.

Braithwaite started his education at Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station and continued his education with course work and research at Brigham Young University, the University of Hawaii, and the University of the Pacific. He specialized in paleontology, invertebrate zoology, and marine biology. He spent over 100 hours training with scuba gear. He returned to BYU to start the marine biology department, ultimately teaching and training thousands of students.

Each spring, he took a handful of students to the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology for hands-on learning opportunities. Craig Young was one of Braithwaite’s early mentees and is now the director of the Oregon Institute. “Lee was not only our teacher . . . he was our counselor, our friend, and our role model,” Young reflects. Young first met Braithwaite as an undergraduate student, then later became his graduate teaching assistant and remained in touch throughout his PhD studies. Together, they coauthored Young’s first two scientific publications. “It was a pleasure to see him every spring for nearly a decade and to invite his academic progeny to a celebration of his career when he retired.”

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“Lee was not only our teacher... he was our counselor, our friend, and our role model..."

Craig Young
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His students fondly referred to him as “Dr. B” on their excursions, including a memorable research cruise to the Bahamas, where Lee had his first opportunity to visit the deep-sea floor in a submersible. He burned through an entire 100-foot roll of 35mm slide film taking photos from the plexiglass submersible sphere that provided panoramic views of the ocean life. Along with photography, Braithwaite loved art and was working on a pen-and-ink illustrated guide to invertebrates when he passed away.

Lee Braithwaite leaning over rocks to take picture in red socks

Russell Rader, now a professor at BYU, was another student mentored by Dr. B. Rader fondly remembers an excursion to the University of Washington’s Friday Harbor Laboratories in the San Juan Islands. At the time, Rader was premed and planning on pursuing medical school, but a few days with Dr. B shifted Rader’s life plan. “I decided, no, I was going to study marine biology,” Rader says. “Dr. B changed the course of my career and, consequently, my life, just by doing what he does: taking students to the coast and teaching them marine science.”

Young agrees that trips with Braithwaite were the highlight of his time at university: “I think most of Lee’s students would agree that their first field trip to the coast with him was a life-changing event.” Young recalls one memorable moment on a coastal trip where he found Braithwaite kneeling on a rock, taking photos of a small creature he had found. He had removed his shoes somewhere along the shore and crouched down in bright red woolen socks. “For some reason, this image has stayed with me for the past several decades as an example of Lee’s focus and dedication,” Young shares.

Lee Braithwaite Posing In Office

Braithwaite had the unique experience of teaching alongside his past students. Rader ended up teaching at BYU, taking over some of Dr. B’s marine biology classes after Braithwaite’s retirement in 2011. Braithwaite was quite fond of every living creature, and Rader remembers a moment walking along the mudflats at low tide with Dr. B. Every few steps, they encountered the burrow of a large clam. When startled, the clams would retract their siphons into the sediment, expelling a spurt of water that rose up to six feet into the air. “Lee was pointing out all sorts of the myriad of critters that happened to live on and in the mud. . . . It just looked like this muddy, flat plain, but to him, it was this fascinating world of hundreds of different species of invertebrates.”

Lee F. Cox Braithwaite passed away from old age on September 17, 2020. After more than 50 years of teaching, researching, and mentoring students, he will be greatly missed by all who met him. His legacy and influence as the original marine biology professor at BYU will never be forgotten.