Remembering Robert Guillard: Renowned Scientist, Treasured Friend


Last week, the world lost a great scientist – and we lost a dear friend – when Robert R. L. Guillard passed away at 95 years old. He is survived by his wife of 53 years, Ruth, as well as three stepsons and five grandchildren.

Bob came to Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in 1981 with his astounding collection of marine phytoplankton species in tow. This algal archive formed the core of what is now known as the Provasoli-Guillard National Center for Marine Algae and Microbiota (NCMA). As the world’s largest and most diverse collection of marine algae, the NCMA was declared a National Center and Facility by the U.S. Congress in 1992. It remains a core part of our laboratory and a critical resource for the international scientific community.

Bob was a prominent scientist long before he joined our laboratory. After receiving his master’s degree and Ph.D. from Yale University, he worked briefly as a research associate at the University of Hawaii before being hired by the Oyster Institute of North America in 1955. There, he worked to establish cultures of marine algae and develop methods for growing the algae eaten by larval oysters and clams. In 1958, he brought his research to Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, where he worked and grew his collection of marine algae until he came to our laboratory.

During his career he made many important contributions to aquaculture, oceanography, and phycology. He mastered the science, and the art, of growing and maintaining marine algae in culture. He developed “f/2” and many other now-ubiquitous mediums used to grow marine algae for study in the laboratory and for food in aquaculture hatcheries. His research changed the way scientists think about microalgae and the role it plays in the ocean. With hundreds of published articles, thousands of citations, and one genus and three species named in his honor, Bob’s name and scientific legacy won’t be forgotten.

We will always remember him as:

A Great Scientist

“Long before I met him, I knew Bob Guillard’s name. My former laboratory hosted the UK’s national algal collection, and even his famous "f/2” medium had become part of my vocabulary. After I joined Bigelow Laboratory, it became obvious that maintaining the legacy of the algae collection Bob started was going to be both a challenge and passion for me. Bob would often stop by my office to see if I’d read a recent article, usually a great science paper pointing to the profound influence that algae have on our planet. It was a huge honor to get to know Bob and Ruth personally, and one that I will treasure. He was a pioneering scientist, a raconteur, and a person with whom you would happily and easily spend a few hours. We will miss him, but we are proud to carry on the legacy of his work here at the lab.”

- Graham Shimmield, Executive Director and President

An Inspiring Mentor

“Bob introduced me to the amazing world of marine microbiology when I was an intern with him, and he changed my life. I wouldn't be working at Bigelow Laboratory now if it weren’t for him. He was a patient mentor and incredibly thorough in his explanations of science. Bob's love of both science and history meant that we frequently read the original papers that broke ground into what are now considered fundamental tenets in ocean sciences. This idea that you won't really understand the science until you know the story behind the discovery was a very valuable lesson and one that still resonates with me today.”

- Ilana Gilg, Research Associate

A Generous Colleague

“To talk with Bob was to learn from Bob. I came to Bigelow Laboratory knowing little about algal culture. Bob was always willing to take the time to pass on some of his wealth of knowledge. He would describe his experiments and how he discovered the best ways to culture specific algal strains. Those brief glimpses into his process were instrumental in developing my understanding of how to culture algae.”

- Julie Sexton, Curator of the NCMA

A Man of Many Talents

“Outside of work, Bob had many diverse interests and was an expert in most of them. He taught fencing, and one of his students became an Olympic silver medalist. He taught medieval Morris folk dancing. He was an avid gun collector and target shooter, as well as a gun rights advocate. He was a musicologist, with a love for British folk and classical music. He had an often-outrageous sense of humor that he would use to catch a person, or an entire audience, off guard. He was a great letter writer and had many friends of all ages and cultures whom he kept in touch with his entire life. He spurned the computer and humorously referred to the Internet as the ‘info-world,’ which I doubt he ever visited. He had an uncanny memory with enough stored knowledge that he probably never needed it.”

- Jeff Brown, Research Associate and Assistant Curator of the NCMA

A Genuine Character

“Bob was always thinking and wondering about things. Need an idea for an experiment? Go talk to Bob. He was never stingy about sharing his ideas, nor his time, to help someone learn. He was never one to let anything go to waste. He was renowned for his ‘dumpster diving’ adventures at the lab … and happily able to laugh at himself for it. I’ll miss his inquiring and truly esoteric mind the most.”

- Wendy Bellows, Safety Officer

A Dear Friend

“I met Bob 11 years ago when I first began working at the lab. One day, this older fellow stopped me and said, ‘I hear you're from Texas. Do you like to shoot things?’ I responded, ‘Well, as a matter of fact yes, sir. I reckon I do.’ There was a twinkle in his eyes, and he said, ‘Come to my house after work. I'll feed you and then we can shoot things.’ I walked off thinking what an odd encounter it had been, but I showed up. He introduced me to his family. His wife, Ruth, cooked a lovely meal … and we shot things! Bob was the first real friend I had in Maine. Perhaps it seems like an odd pairing -- a 25-year-old kid from Texas and an 84-year-old New Englander. Well, it wasn't. It was perfect. In fact, it was remarkable how many things we had in common. Our friendship grew over time … and we continued to shoot things. I feel fortunate that I was able to visit with him a few days before he died. He was still feisty as ever, and we were friends until the end.”

- Carlton Rauschenberg, Research Associate