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John W. Saunders Jr. papers

 Record Group
Identifier: MC-MBL-Saunders-Sci

Scope and Contents

This collection consists of Saunders’s personal correspondence, files on his postdoctoral and graduate students, universities and lecture files, embryo microscopy and miscellaneous microscopy files, course binder materials, and other miscellaneous files pertaining to his research and education from 1941 to 2002.


  • 1941-2002

Conditions Governing Access

Most of the materials are open for research. Access to box 3 is restricted. Contact the MBL Archives ( for further information.

Biographical Information

John Warren Saunders Jr. was born in Muskogee, Oklahoma, in 1919. Growing up during the Great Depression, Saunders began working and earning money at the age of eight to help financially support his family. He was a strong student and went on after high school to enter the University of Oklahoma in 1936. Studying Zoology and Botany, Saunders earned a B.S. and stayed on to earn a M.S. in 1941. When the United States entered World War II, he enlisted in the Navy and served as an officer in the Pacific theater in 1943. From 1943-1946 his ship participated in nine island-hopping invasions. Upon his homecoming in January 1946 he entered Johns Hopkins University and earned a Ph.D. in zoology in 1948. Saunders met his wife, Lilyan, and together they had five children: Sarah, Jack, Maggie, Michael, and Kitty. Saunders and his family summered in Woods Hole beginning in 1959, and in 1985, he and Lilyan retired and settled in Falmouth.

He began his teaching career as an instructor in zoology at the University of Chicago from 1948 to 1949. From there he joined Marquette University in 1949 as an Assistant Professor of zoology, progressing to Associate Professor, Professor, and eventually to Chairman of the Biology Department. He left the University in 1965 and accepted a position at the University of Pennsylvania as a Professor of anatomy. In 1967 he left Pennsylvania and was appointed Leading Professor of Biological Sciences at the State University of New York at Albany, where he remained until 1985 when he was distinguished as Professor Emeritus.

He is most well known for his contributions to the field of developmental biology, and his research remains central to the understanding of vertebrate limb development. His research helped to identify the role of secreted growth factors emanating from the apical ectodermal ridge (AER). Additionally, Saunders and his colleagues were some of the earliest investigators to study cell death as a part of normal development.

Saunders was a member of corporation of the Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory in Salisbury Cove, Maine, from 1954 to 1983, also serving as a summer investigator there from 1954 to 1958. He also became a member of corporation of Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole in 1959 and served on the Board of Trustees from 1969 to 1972. He was a summer investigator at the MBL from 1958 to 1972 and also taught courses in embryology from 1958 to 1963 and again from 1995 to 2003.

From the start of his career Saunders was involved in several prestigious scientific societies. In 1946 he joined the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In 1948 Saunders became a member of the American Society of Zoologists, serving as program officer from 1959 to 1962, membership committee chairman from 1959 to 1960, chair of the developmental biology division in 1963, and secretary from 1964 to 1966. He became a member of the Society for the Development of Biology in 1966, serving on the executive committee from 1967 to 1969 and as president in 1968. In 2006 Saunders was elected to The National Academy of Sciences—an achievement considered to be one of the highest honors in American science and engineering. Other memberships include the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters (1950); American Institute of Biological Sciences (1957); the New York Academy of Sciences (1958); Society for Experimental Biology and Medicine (1964); Association for the Advancement of Aging Research (1969), and council member from 1969 to 1970; the Society for Cell Biology (1960); and he is an emeritus of the American Association of Anatomists.


12 boxes (twelve 24" x 12" boxes)



Physical Location

Boxes 1-3: Library Service Center at Falmouth Technology Park [FTP: B2e]

Boxes 4-6: Library Service Center at Falmouth Technology Park [FTP: B2f]

Box 7: Library Service Center at Falmouth Technology Park [FTP: D1a]

Boxes 8-9: Library Service Center at Falmouth Technology Park [FTP: D1b]

Immediate Source of Acquisition

This collection was given to the MBL archives as a gift from John W. Saunders Jr. directly.

Processing Information

This collection maintains Saunders’s original organizational scheme. Original folder labels were also maintained. Saunders's personal items were removed for privacy issues.

Processed by Diane Rielinger. The finding aid was prepared by Lindsey Fresta on May 13, 2011, and updated by Diane Rielinger in December 2014.

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Repository Details

Part of the Marine Biological Laboratory Archives Repository