Dr. Harry Patton: teacher, scientist, musician, sailor

Sometimes in academia, teaching takes a back seat to the highly competitive field of scientific research. But serving the needs of students was always a priority for Dr. Harry D. Patton.

As chairman of the University of Washington department of physiology and biophysics, Dr. Patton relished teaching and was known worldwide for his editing and major contributions to a basic textbook, "Physiology and Biophysics." He also was co-author of "Introduction to Basic Neurology."

"He really felt that a quality academic education ... was something that everyone deserved to receive and that we should all work hard putting our best into our teaching," said Dr. Bertil Hille, who taught in the department that Dr. Patton chaired from 1966 to 1983.

Dr. Patton died of cancer May 26. He was 84.

Research was also a big part of Dr. Patton's long, distinguished career. He and his colleagues were among the first in the world to record the electrical activity of individual cells in the spinal cord. And he was known for research on the spinal-nerve pathways responsible for muscle control.

"He certainly opened new vistas on how to study individual cells of the nervous system," said Dr. Wayne Crill, a former UW colleague.

Along with his teaching and research, Dr. Patton was widely admired for the style he brought to his work. He had great civility and respect for all who were associated with him, his colleagues said.

"Harry Patton was the embodiment of a true gentleman and a scholar," said Hille. "He cared about people, and we all cared about him."

Born in Bentonville, Ark., Dr. Patton was a graduate of the University of Arkansas and earned his medical degree and doctorate from Yale. He joined the UW's newly established department of physiology and biophysics in 1948.

Dr. Patton had many interests besides science. His life was balanced with the joys of family, music, craftsmanship and the sea.

His daughter Betsy Carlson of Seattle fondly remembers the enthralling stories he made up about "Daffodil Hill" and a girl who grew sunflower seeds and weathered many adventures on her way to market to sell them. She remembers, too, the music — her dad playing guitar and leading the family and friends in songs such as "John Henry," "The Golden Vanity" and "Rye Whiskey."

A basement wood shop in their Madrona neighborhood home was another of life's pleasures. Dr. Patton built many things, including furniture and a harpsichord and a clavichord. Cruising on the family boat, the Neuron II, also provided years of fun and adventure in Puget Sound, the San Juan Islands and Alaska. And after retirement, summer cruises to Alaska were a regular happening.

"People couldn't understand why we wanted to stay all that time on a boat that wasn't that big but was very comfortable. But we were always busy fishing or digging or singing or something," said Barbara Patton, Dr. Patton's wife of 58 years.

Besides his wife and daughter Betsy, Dr. Patton is survived by daughter Ann Bentley of Corte Madera, Calif., and four grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 4 p.m. tomorrow at University Unitarian Church, 6566 35th Ave. N.E., Seattle. Remembrances may be made to Northwest Harvest, P.O. Box 12272, Seattle, WA 98102, or to the Nature Conservancy, 4245 N. Fairfax Drive, Suite 100, Arlington, VA 22203.

Warren King can be reached at 206- 464-2247 or wking@seattletimes.com.