John Barrett Heiser

January 21, 1945 ~ April 22, 2022 (age 77)


John Barrett Heiser, widely known as JB, passed away at Cayuga Medical Center on April 22, 2022 at the age of 77. He was a retired senior lecturer at Cornell University and a former director of the Shoals Marine Laboratory, which is jointly operated by Cornell University and the University of New Hampshire.


Born on January 21, 1945 in Princeton, Indiana, JB was the only child of John Heiser, a farm implement dealer, and Annamae (Barrett) Heiser, a nurse. He was largely raised by his maternal grandmother because his parents both worked full time. He first became fascinated by fishes when his grandmother would park his stroller in front of a fish tank while she was shopping. By the time JB reached the third grade, he was thoroughly hooked after becoming the custodian of the class fishbowl during winter vacation. At age 14, he began a service maintaining aquariums in local banks and other businesses and started appearing on local TV to talk about fish.


After graduating from Princeton High School in 1963, he attended Purdue University, where he majored in biology, graduating in 1967. That summer, he took his first formal course in marine science at the recently founded Shoals Marine Laboratory, located on Appledore Island off the Maine coast. In the fall, he entered a graduate program in the marine science field at Cornell.


JB soon started teaching at the Shoals Marine Laboratory as a graduate teaching assistant. In 1970, he was placed in charge of the lab sections of a new Vertebrate Biology course at Cornell on the Ithaca campus. That led to his co-authorship of Vertebrate Life, a widely used textbook that was first published in 1979 and is still in print in its 9th edition.


In 1979, JB became the second Director of the Shoals Marine Lab, a position he would hold for fourteen stressful but rewarding and productive years. After stepping down from that role, he traveled extensively, both independently and as faculty for Cornell Adult University, the Smithsonian Institution, and other groups offering field-based education, including the Organization for Tropical Studies in Costa Rica. As his health deteriorated, he stopped traveling but continued to stay in touch with friends, colleagues, and former students around the world.


JB was a man of stupendous intellect, with a huge heart and a generous nature. His hearty laugh and booming voice were unmistakable and unforgettable. From the day he arrived at Cornell, JB served as a model, a mentor, an advisor, a friend, and, above all, a teacher for graduate and undergraduate students alike. He gave sage counsel and spellbinding lectures. He enriched the education of several generations of students, and he notably affected the careers of his graduate student contemporaries.


JB never married, but he is survived by his longtime companion, Mary Beth Norton. He also is survived by his maternal cousins, including Sharon Knorr, of Alto, New Mexico, Steve Barrett of Carlsbad, CA, John Ford of Fairfield, CA, Pat Rowland of Greenwood, IN and Elaine Nonella of Lodi, CA, as well as countless students of all ages who benefitted from his wisdom and vast knowledge of our marine and ecological environment.


True to form, JB donated his body to science to benefit future anatomists and physicians. This thoughtful act in itself demonstrates how devoted he was to furthering the educational process at every opportunity.


A sincere thank you to the caregivers who supported JB in the last months of his life and the staff at the Cayuga Medical Center Intensive Care Unit for their compassionate care of JB.


Memorial celebration plans will be forthcoming. In lieu of flowers, please consider donating to the Shoals Marine Laboratory ( in JB’s name.

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