‘Great thinker’: UC Berkeley professor emeritus, herpetologist David Wake dies at age 84

David Wake, a widely-loved and respected UC Berkeley professor emeritus of integrative biology and the world’s leading salamander expert, died April 29 at the age of 84.

After getting his doctorate at the University of Southern California, David Wake was an assistant professor at the University of Chicago until 1969, when he was hired at UC Berkeley. According to his wife, Marvalee Wake, who is also a graduate professor in integrative biology, the two viewed their science as “complementary.” 

“Hundreds of messages (are) coming in worldwide that pretty much say the same thing, talking about his high level of integrity, his ethical nature, his warmth and friendliness, his intellectual curiosity and intellectual scope,” Marvalee Wake said.

David Wake had a commitment to conservation and was one of the first to notice the decline of amphibian populations, Marvalee Wake said. 

According to campus Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, or MVZ, director Michael Nachman, David Wake made “fundamental contributions” in several areas of evolutionary biology, including conservation and convergent evolution. 

“One was a deep understanding of how changes in development could give rise to diversity over evolutionary time,” Nachman said. “There’s a whole field that people refer to as evo devo, for evolutionary development, and he can be seen as someone who helped start that field.”

David Wake was the director of the MVZ for 27 years, during which he was involved in the redesign of the Valley Life Sciences Building, which houses the MVZ. 

He also helped design the layout of the MVZ to foster interaction between students and faculty and created a shared molecular lab in the museum, Nachman added.

“He was just a very kind and gentle person, he was the best kind of colleague, and he was sort of a quiet person but he had this deep wisdom,” Nachman said. “He touches so many people because of that.”

After teaching an amphibian decline seminar, David Wake also co-founded AmphibiaWeb, an online resource that documents all amphibian species in the world. 

According to AmphibiaWeb associate director and MVZ archives and biodiversity informatics curator Michelle Koo, more than 100 undergraduates have contributed to the project.

“As more data became online, AmphibiaWeb kept growing and expanding,” Koo said. “He told me more than once that this was his legacy.”

In addition, David Wake taught an evolution course that several have deemed “legendary,” Marvalee Wake said. She added that multiple teachers have modeled their courses after David Wake’s.

Nachman and Koo both noted the impact David Wake had on undergraduate students through his evolutionary biology course and his mentorship.

“He mentioned every year he has scores of undergrads write him out of the blue, decades after they left Berkeley, about how impactful the class was,” Koo said. “Their seminal memory of Berkeley is that class.”

One of his former students and advisees, Nancy Staub, said “everything clicked” after she took the course, which caused her to switch into his lab for her doctorate.

Staub described David Wake as a “great thinker” who was intellectually active until the end of his life. 

“His memory was amazing,” Staub said. “It was impressive how much he knew and kept this organized framework in his head, and from that could get these bigger ideas of how speciation happened, for example.”

David Wake received several awards throughout his career, including the Joseph Grinnell Medal from the MVZ and the Fellows Medal of the California Academy of Sciences, according to a historical perspective co-authored by Staub.

Both Staub and Marvalee Wake described the Wake labs as an extended family.

“He was a giant in his field, everyone looked up to him,” Staub said. “He does leave a huge hole in the science community, both in the scientific work and in our hearts.

Contact Maya Akkaraju at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @maya_akkaraju.