Professor of Biology
October 16, 1993
Richard A. Ryan was born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1925. When he was eight years old, his family moved to Westchester, New York. He was an avid naturalist and bird watcher from an early age and as a teenager, helped form the Westchester Hawking Club. He served his country during World War II as a rifleman in the 10th Mountain Division, participating in the Po Valley and North Appennine Campaigns in Italy.
After the war, he attended Cornell University, where he received a B.A. in 1948, an M.S. a year later, and a Ph.D. in vertebrate zoology in 1951. Dr. Ryan began his teaching career at Hobart and William Smith Colleges as a biology instructor in the spring of 1952. He became an assistant professor in the fall of 1952, an associate professor in 1959, and a professor in 1964. Early in his career at the Colleges, he was offered an assistant professorship at the University of Pittsburgh but, after visiting there, returned to Geneva knowing he had found his place to live and work. Professor Ryan stayed on to spend 35 “wonderful” years in Geneva and retired in 1987.
Over the years, Dr. Ryan held numerous leadership positions within the biology department. An alumnus of the period said, “He, more than any other person, was responsible for the excellent reputation and success rate of our undergraduates getting into medical school.” His real passion was ornithology, however, and his very early morning bird watching expeditions were surprisingly popular among students. His enthusiasm for the subject translated into student interest. “He was a man ahead of his time in his understanding of the delicate balance of things in the natural environment,” said another of his former students. Dr. Ryan published many articles on duck banding and had a lifelong commitment to ecological concerns.
Provost Walter Durfee said of him that his interest in teaching and competence in subject matter was unusual, he demanded very high standards of student performance, and the warmth and responsiveness of his personality created enthusiasm among students. He was held in “high regard for his ability both as a scientist and a teacher.” His students expressed the same sentiments. Another alumnus said, “He was my favorite teacher because of his dynamic, engaging, and inquiring teaching techniques.” He would shift “back and forth to different layers of a topic being taught with amazing animation, anecdotes, and depth of understanding.”