Jean Clark Dan:
One of my oldest friends and heroes, or rather heroines, was my mother’s best friend and college roommate.  She was a woman of enormous intellect, wry good humor, unfailing nerve, audacity and imagination.  Somehow I thought everybody in the world must be like that.  There have proven to be few. 

Jean Clark Dan was a marine biologist.  She married a Japanese man and moved to Japan on the eve of WWII.  That proved not to be the best of timing, but she managed well enough during the war.  At least she was not put in a prison camp as her husband would have been had he moved here.  Of course we say they were “interned.”  But they were not free to leave and my understanding is that they lost their property.  Jean managed to keep her family fed when not everybody was eating.  She bought a goat for the milk.  Her husband pointed out that in Japan every tree was owned.  Somebody, not necessarily the owner had the right to what fell off the tree.  Somebody could cut things from the tree.  There was no waist.  She put her mind to it and realized that the railroads were new, and there was no ancient tradition determining who could bring a goat to browse on the grass that grew between railroad ties.  She also reasoned that famine or no, there would still be florists, and all the floral arrangements were fresh.  That meant a lot of perfectly fine flower arrangements were thrown out.  It was just a matter of figuring out when.  So out into the back alley would be flown flowers of such exquisite beauty that few in this country have seen the like.  And there would be my friend with the goat to munch them down to make milk for the bairns.

We lost her decades gone by, but I recently got a postcard from her.  I didn’t actually get the card, just a copy of it.  The copy has vanished into my chaotic files within the past few weeks, but it was a picture of a Japanese arch, free standing.  The note said to me that I would look very small standing beneath it.  The date was more than sixty years ago.  If I ever find it again, I shall copy it and post it here.

Jean Dan, as a marine biologist, was interested in sea urchins, particularly in how the egg and sperm of the sea urchin reacted to each other.  Once, on one of here rare – it’s a long way from Japan – and much loved visits she showed us some eight by ten glossies she had made of an electron micrograph of a sea urchin sperm in egg albumin.  The sperm had extended a filament from its tip.  As a youth I was underwhelmed.  So what?  It works.  Who cares?  Well when that particular thing doesn’t work somebody cares.  I care.  It has become my obsession. 

Ironically Jan Dan was friends with Professor Don Fawcett of Harvard Medical School.  His interest was histology, which at that time meant electron microscopy.  We were encouraged to do research during the summers.  The most natural thing in the world would have been for me to have gone to his office and said I wanted to pursue the histology of egg and sperm interactions.  After a summer or two I might have known more than I know now. 

Had the card turned up then, it might have goaded me into action.  I was only in the dawn of life when the card was written and in the twilight when it arrived – however briefly – and the intervening decades of sunlight I hid in shadows lost in dreams. 

Now of course the moment when sperm finds eggs is as dramatic as the picture by Michelangelo to God giving life to Adam. downloaded July 12, 2010.

That is the moment when it all begins.

I was not sensitive to the drama then.  She tried to tell me.

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