UBC biologist killed during research trip was a leading authority in his field

Despite 'dangerous and heroic effort' to save him, Denis Lynn dies after being struck by wave in Queen Charlotte Sound

A UBC adjunct professor who was killed while collecting mussels in a tide pool with graduate students is being remembered as a man whose depth of knowledge and commitment earned him the respect of his peers.

Denis Lynn, 71, died June 26 while on a research trip to Calvert Island, just east of Queen Charlotte Sound. A stray wave struck him, resulting in his death. 

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“His colleagues in the field were with him right away and did everything possible but Denis had already passed away,” wrote Patrick Keeling, a fellow UBC professor, on the International Society of Protistologists website.

“There was a dangerous and heroic effort to save him, but he could not be revived,” said Josh Silberg, a spokesperson for the Hakai Institute, which was hosting the bioblitz event on Calvert.


Protistology is the study of single-cell eukaryotes, or protists.

After earning a PhD in 1974, Denis spent much of his career at University of Guelph, through which he conducted ground-breaking research on the evolution of ciliated protozoa (single-cell organisms that have hair-like structures on the outside of their membrane and that live in basically every water habitat on Earth).

 “He was by any measure the pre-eminent ciliate systematist of the last several decades,” wrote Erik Peterson, president of the Tula Foundation, which funds the Hakai Institute, on Twitter.

Denis Lynn on beach
Denis Lynn conducted ground-breaking research on the evolution of ciliated protozoa. This June 22 photo was taken on Calvert Island just days before Lynn died. - Nick Irwin

“His work led to a major revision of our understanding of ciliate phylogeny and led to resulting changes in the higher level taxonomy of ciliate orders and families,” he said.

The  University of Guelph website says Lynn was editor-in-chief of the Journal of Eukaryotic Microbiologybetween 1998 and 2012. At the time of his death he was treasurer of the International Society of Protistologists, a position he’d held since 2012.

Denis Lynn Mount Gardner trail
In this 2014 photo, Lynn, on the right, poses with fellow Bowen Island Rotarians Robert Ballantyne and Nancy Joyce at a Mount Gardner trailhead sign. He worked on the project to improve signage on the popular hiking trail. - Bowen Island Undercurrent

On Bowen Island, where he lived for the past eight years, Lynn was known for his community contributions. He was a charter member and former president of the Rotary Club of Bowen Island.

With other Rotary members, Lynn mapped the Mt. Gardner trails and worked with local organizations and the province to acquire more local control over the trails.

“He was an all-round guiding light for the club,” said Hilary Butler, a fellow member of Bowen Rotary. “He devoted an enormous amount of time to researching all facets of the Rotary world, providing a key role in training other directors.”

Denis Lynn was born in 1947 in Kingston, Ont. His father, Ralph Beverly Lynn, was a surgeon and, as a boy, Denis travelled a lot, crisscrossing the Atlantic for the senior Dr. Lynn’s work.

The oldest of four brothers, Denis spent much of grade school in Kingston, and would go on to study at University of Guelph, University of Toronto, and University of Maryland, where he met Portia Holt, a postdoctoral researcher.

The two were soon married and went on to have two sons together, Francis and Robin.

In 2010 Denis and Portia moved to Bowen Island and Denis took up an adjunct professorship at UBC, where he taught the odd class.

“I came to know him not just for his unique contributions to science and as the foremost authority on ciliate diversity and evolution, but also as an outstanding role model for leadership and collegiality.” wrote Denis’s UBC botanist friend and coworker, Patrick Keeling on the Protistologists website.

“We all learned a lot from Denis every day, about biology and about living a life in science, and we will miss him greatly.”


Bronwyn Beairsto is the editor of the Bowen Island Undercurrent.


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