Mesa Musings: Right professor brings biology to life for humanities student

I detested biology as a high school youth, so I wasn't thrilled to face it again in professor Lloyd Mason Smith's Orange Coast College Biology 100 class in 1968.

Smith, however, turned my opinion on its ear. He took what this humanities student considered a mind-numbing science class and transformed it into an adventure.

Smith died three years ago at the age of 93.

"Lloyd was an old-school biologist," said Gary James, an OCC biologist for 26 years who was also dean of math and science. "He was a natural history guy ... he loved plants and animals, and that's what came across in his classes. Today, biologists are molecular and chemical in their focus."

Smith was an OCC faculty member from 1956-80. His biology class was one of the best courses I took during my collegiate career. Because of him, I developed a zeal for the subject and earned an A.

An outstanding large lecture-hall instructor, Smith prided himself on delivering mesmerizing, fact-filled presentations. His lectures were meticulously crafted and lavishly illustrated with slides he'd taken during his extensive travels.

He was an authority on the world's deserts.

A Montana native, Smith earned a bachelor's and master's degrees in biology and vertebrate zoology at UC Berkeley. He did post-graduate work at Oxford, and also graduated from the Yosemite School of Field Natural History.

Professor Smith was the first director of the Palm Springs Desert Museum. He turned it into one of the finest desert museums in the world.

He later directed what was then called the Cabrillo Marine Museum in San Pedro, and managed publicity and education for the San Diego Zoo. He was a freelance photographer for Walt Disney, and worked with famed "Living Desert" cameraman Tad Nichols. He also knew Disney personally.

Smith joined OCC's faculty in the fall of 1956 as a zoology instructor. He fell in love with teaching and dedicated the rest of his life to it.

Smith was an inveterate (or is that invertebrate?) traveler. His adventures in the wild included being chased by an elephant and rhinoceros (not at the same time); staring down a tiger; and being pestered by mosquitoes, midges and tsetse flies.

He journeyed down the Nile and Amazon rivers, visited the Galapagos, and left footprints in the sands of virtually every desert on the planet. He conducted extensive research in the Namib Desert situated on southern Africa's west coast.

"The place gets to you," he told me during a 1976 interview. "It has a magnetic quality."

When Smith first joined OCC's faculty he taught zoology. In the early '60s, he began teaching Biology 100.

He also took part in OCC's public lecture series and continued to offer presentations long after retirement. He lectured on such topics as "Deserts of the World," "Islands of the World," "Unknown Southwest Africa," "A History of Gardens," "Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle" and "A Naturalist's View of Antarctica."

For years my dad and I attended his lectures.

Smith spent a 1975 sabbatical painstakingly inspecting the Namib Desert. He mailed his logs back to me in OCC's public relations department for inclusion in the college's archives.

His writing style was both scientific and poetic.

In one dispatch he wrote: "That night [we] drove down to [the dunes to] see what we could find in the sands. Nothing but one lone barking gecko on our way back and some chameleon tracks. It was cold and there had been a biting wind all day, so perhaps that explains it.

"It was all worthwhile to me just to get way out into the dunes after dark. When the full moon broke through a barrier of long black clouds and flooded the dune slope — springing into sharp silhouette the thousands of sand ripples — there was an utter silence and quiet that you could feel. All of this combined to create a truly memorable experience that I'll not forget."

And I'll not forget Lloyd Mason Smith! He was a brilliant naturalist, spellbinding lecturer and accomplished photographer.

And he knew how to make biology relevant for indifferent humanities students.

JIM CARNETT lives in Costa Mesa. His column runs Tuesdays.

Copyright © 2019, Daily Pilot
EDITION: California | U.S. & World