Donald M. Wilson

~ the point that must be reached ~

(1932 - 1970)

© Scott N. Currie, UC Riverside, 2011

Don Wilson was a pivotal figure in the emergence of neuroethology as a discipline, and in the use of invertebrate “simple systems” for neuro-behavioral research in the 1960s. He remains especially well known for his first locust flight paper (Wilson, 1961a) that conclusively demonstrated the existence of a flight "central pattern generator" (CPG) – a central neural network that could produce rhythmic, patterned motor activity on its own, even when deprived of all movement-related sensory feedback.  His studies laid the groundwork for later cellular and synaptic analyses of the flight circuit by Malcolm Burrows (e.g., 1975), Robertson and Pearson (e.g., 1985) and others that produced a finely detailed understanding of locust flight's intricate neural mechanism.  Wilson pioneered this work as a postdoctoral fellow in Denmark and continued it as faculty at Yale, U.C. Berkeley and Stanford.  But before all this, while he was still a student, Wilson was also a highly accomplished rock climber.  He is remembered in that community for numerous first ascents in the American southwest, including Tahquitz in southern California and several sandstone towers in the "Four Corners" region of the Colorado plateau.  He died in June 1970 during a whitewater rafting accident in Idaho at the age of 37.  W. Jackson Davis has a hand-written note from Don Wilson, framed on the wall of his home-office.  It’s a Kafka aphorism (from: The Zurau Aphorisms, #5) that was found on Wilson’s desk at Stanford shortly after his death was announced.  It reads: “From a certain point onward there is no longer any turning back. That is the point that must be reached.”  

[Earlier versions of this brief biography were presented in the March 2011 issue of Neuroethology Newsletter and in a history poster at the 2010 Society for Neuroscience conference.]

Early scientific training

Donald Melvin Wilson was born in Seattle on October 6, 1932 and spent all of his early life in southern California, graduating from John C. Fremont high school in south Los Angeles in 1950, receiving his BS and MS degrees in biology from USC in 1954 and 1956, respectively, and his Ph.D. in zoology from Theodore Bullock’s laboratory at UCLA in 1959. (All dates provided by Nancy Wilson; birth date confirmed from Don Wilson's draft card.  The 1933 birth date originally cited in Wilson's Stanford obituary was incorrect.)  His doctoral thesis was entitled “Nervous control of muscle in Annelids and Cephalopods” and helped to establish his reputation as a promising young comparative neurobiologist when it was published as back-to-back papers in the Journal of Experimental Biology (Wilson, 1960a, b).  This research focused on motor control in two groups of annelids (polychaetes and leeches) and two of cephalopods (octopi and squid), and included observations on the muscular effects of giant axon stimulation in polychaetes (Neanthes brandti and N. virens Sars) and squid (Loligo pealeii and L. opalescens Berry).  The work was conducted at UCLA during the academic year, and at the Marine Biological Lab in Woods Hole (L. pealeii experiments) and the Friday Harbor Marine Lab (N. brandti) during the summers of 1957 and 1958, respectively.  Wilson extended that interest in giant axon function in two additional papers that were not part of his thesis.  These included (1) one of the earliest studies to correlate Mauthner cell activity with fish startle behavior (Wilson, 1959; using the African lungfish, Protopterus because of the huge size of its Mauthner axons) and (2) an account of the electrical connections between lateral giant fibers in the earthworm (Wilson, 1961b).  On all four of these papers, Wilson was sole author, which speaks to his drive and self-direction, but also recalls Ted Bullock’s unselfish encouragement of independence in all his students.

Central pattern generation in the control of locust flight

After finishing his Ph.D., Wilson moved to Torkel Weis-Fogh’s lab in Copenhagen for post-doctoral work (Sept. 1959 - Oct. 60), where he began his locust flight experiments.  He used an ingenious setup (see below) which permitted the synchronization of wing muscle or nerve recordings with stroboscopic photographic records of wing position during flight.  The insects flew in-place, suspended at the end of a pendulum in front of a wind-tunnel.  The other end of the pendulum acted as the arm of a double-throw switch that controlled the wind velocity via a servo-mechanism, so that the strength of the animal’s forward flight controlled wind speed.

Locust flight set-up

Experimental apparatus used by Wilson (1961a) to record wing position along with sensory nerve and muscle impulses during tethered locust flight.  Wing muscle action potentials triggered a strobe lamp, which captured wing position via a camera with an open shutter and permitted synchronization of wing-position with nerve/muscle activity (from Scientific American, Wilson, 1968.)  



Torkel Weis-Fogh

Portrait of Torkel Weis-Fogh at Cambridge University, 1969. The original hangs in the Cambridge University Zoology (Balfour & Newton) Library, and is used with their permission (Ramsey & Muspratt / Cambridgeshire Collection).


From: Wilson and Weis-Fogh(1962)


The essential result of Wilson’s 1961 JEB paper was that the basic flight motor pattern remained intact following partial or complete deafferentation of the wings, showing that movement-related sensory feedback was not necessary for the construction of normal motor patterns, and indicating the existence of a central pattern generator for neurogenic flight in the locust.  This was at a time when Sherrington’s “chain-reflex” hypothesis for motor pattern generation, in which simple sensory reflexes triggered each other sequentially to form complex motor patterns (Sherrington, 1947; p.182), was still widely favored (Hoyle, 1980; Bullock, 1995; Edwards, 2006; Stuart, 2007; Mulloney and Smarandache, 2010).

After returning from Copenhagen, faculty appointments followed at Yale (Oct. 1960 – Aug. 61), UC Berkeley (Sept. 1961 – June 68), and Stanford (July 1968 – June 70). The term “central pattern generator” (actually, “central nervous pattern generator”) was coined in another significant paper written with one of Wilson’s early graduate students at UC Berkeley, Robert Wyman (Wilson and Wyman, 1965.)  This article showed that random or rhythmically timed electrical stimulation of the thoracic nerve cord in decapitated and wing-deafferented locusts still evoked coordinated motor output that resembled normal flight motor patterns.  Coordinated flight activity began only after many stimuli, exhibited a wind-up of cycle frequency over multiple seconds until it reached a constant level (about 20 Hz), then displayed many cycles of after-discharge following stimulus-offset.  All of these effects are strikingly similar to the non-linear summation of subliminal stimuli and prolonged motor after-discharge that Sherrington (1947) described for hindlimb scratch motor patterns in low-spinal dogs – and suggest a similar build-up and storage of excitation in a central neural network.


Locust flight

A: Surgically reduced locust preparations, with viscera and varying amounts of their body walls removed, still exhibited wind-induced flight motor patterns, even after movement-related sensory feedback from the wings was reduced or completely abolished  (Wilson, 1968b)  B: Fictive flight motor patterns recorded from the central stumps of the metathoracic and mesothoracic nerves in highly reduced locust preparations in which all sensory feedback from the wings had been eliminated (Wilson, 1961a.)  C: Coordinated flight motor pattern recorded from 4 wing muscles in a headless preparation in response to randomly timed electrical stimulation of the ventral nerve cord, indicated by dots (Wilson and Wyman, 1965).  

Wilson’s relatively brief time at Berkeley (~6.5 years) also resulted in some of the earliest computational and analog electronic models of pattern generating neural networks (Wilson, 1966, Wilson and Waldron, 1968).  In addition, there were analyses of neuromuscular control in myogenic Dipteran flight (Nachtigall and Wilson, 1967), models of interlimb coordination during 8-legged locomotor gaits in tarantulas (Wilson, 1967), and elegant studies that assessed the role of movement-related sensory feedback in modulating centrally driven motor patterns and compensating for perturbations  (Wilson and Gettrup, 1963; Wilson, 1965; 1968a).  In one of these papers (Wilson, 1968a), he nicely summarized the complementary roles of the CPG and sensory feedback in constructing adaptive behavior:  "In the locust flight control system proprioceptive reflexes and exteroceptive inputs supplement and complement the information built into the CNS. Hence, even though the ganglia are pre-programmed to produce a nearly normal motor output pattern, that pattern can be modified to meet current needs. It seems to me that the CNS has programmed into it through the genetic and developmental processes, nearly everything that it is possible for it to know before actual flight occurs. The sensory inputs supply only the genetically unanticipatable information such as wind direction and position of the horizon."  "... Overall it appears that the flight control system is a very safe one, having a multiplicity of complementing mechanisms. It is centrally pre-programmed, perhaps to the fullest extent possible, but it also has a superimposed set of reflexes which can simultaneously relate the animal to its environment, compensate for bodily damage, and correct errors in its central programme.  As a result it can tolerate a high degree of damage and still carry out a very demanding activity."     


Rock Climbing

Wilson met Frank Hoover and Fred Martin while in high school during a summer intern program at the LA County Museum of Natural History and the three began backpacking and climbing together in the Sierra Nevada (Fred Martin, pers. commun.).  He started rock climbing more seriously as an undergraduate biology major at USC (Frank Hoover, pers. commun.) and developed in to a world-class climber by the mid 1950s, when he was in his early twenties.  He is still well known amongst the rock-climbing cognoscenti for a number of extremely hairy first ascents, with small teams made up of the early hot-dogs of the sport (Royal Robbins, Jerry Gallwas, Mark Powell, Bill “Dolt” Feuerer, Chuck Wilts, Warren Harding).  His records began with several important California climbs in the early to mid 1950s, including “Open Book” at Tahquitz (Idyllwild, CA; see Robbins, 2010: "Fail Falling") in 1952 and a famous first attempt at the NW face of Half Dome in Yosemite in 1955 – an attempt that only made it about 1/4 of the way up the sheer wall of rock, but attracted the interest of the Saturday Evening Post.  During this period, Wilson also helped devise the YDS (Yosemite Decimal System) with Royal Robbins and Chuck Wilts, which permitted the precise gauging of difficulty levels for “free climbs” (without aids) on a 5.0-5.9 scale, and he co-authored the “Climber’s Guide to Tahquitz Rock” with Wilts in 1956, which detailed the YDS for the first time.  (At the time, Chuck Wilts was a professor of Electrical Engineering at Caltech and a pioneer in the fields of electric analog computers and feed-back control systems.)  Wilson remains best known in climbing circles for his first ascents of several sandstone desert towers in the “Four Corners” region of the southwest. These included “Spider Rock” (March 1956) in Canyon de Chelly, Arizona, “Cleopatra’s Needle” (Sept. 1956) in the Valley of Thundering Water, New Mexico and the “Totem Pole” (June 1957) in Monument Valley, Utah.  All these desert spire climbs occurred during a 15-month period in which Wilson finished his M.S. degree at USC and began full-time work toward his doctorate at UCLA (Burton, 1956; Wilson, 1957a, 1957b, 1958; Breed, 1958; Sherrick, 1958; Roper, 1970; Jones, 1976; Gallwas, 2007, 2010; Bartlett, 2010). Following the Totem Pole ascent, the Desert Tower team (Wilson, Gallwas, Powell, Feuerer) went their separate ways. Don and Nancy Wilson traveled by VW Bug to Woods Hole, Massachusetts so that Don could spend the rest of the summer 1957 at the Marine Biological Lab.  After that, he completed his Ph.D. at UCLA with Ted Bullock, then moved to Copenhagen to post-doc with Torkel Weis-Fogh and begin his seminal locust flight studies.  After his return to the United States in a series of faculty positions, he continued to climb for pleasure with friends and family, but no longer pursued records.

A: Don Wilson (on left) and Frank Hoover, c.1952-53, when Wilson was an undergraduate at USC. Check out the climbing footwear.  From an article in Summit magazine, August 1956 (Photo by Niles Werner.).  Original caption: “Off for a Sunday practice session of rock climbing are these members of the Angeles Chapter, Sierra Club Climbing Section.  Well-known for their outstanding ability and agility on the rocks are Don Wilson and Frank Hoover. Don recently made a “first ascent” of Spider Rock in Canyon de Chelly National Monument, and Frank is presently Vice Chairman of the Angeles Chapter Rock Climber.”  B: Wilson (lower right) belaying Hoover on Old Woman Rock in Hidden Valley Campground, Joshua Tree National Park. (From the Barbara Lilly Collection, Sierra Club Angeles Chapter Archives, photo by Niles Werner.)


A list of Wilson’s most significant climbs (FA = First Ascent; FFA = First Free Ascent):  


In the third week of June 1955, Don Wilson, Royal Robbins, Jerry Gallwas and Warren Harding attempted to climb the NW face of Half Dome in Yosemite, but a series of problems ended the climb after two and a half days, by which time they had ascended only about one quarter of the 2000-foot face.  In September 1955, the team was photographed and interviewed for an article in the Saturday Evening Post (article titled “They risk their lives for fun”, by Hal Burton, Feb. 25, 1956 ).  These photos were staged for the article, but were not used. A: Left to right: Royal Robbins, unknown park ranger, Don Wilson (sitting in driver’s seat), Jerry Gallwas and Warren Harding signing out at Government Center in Yosemite National Park .  B:  Posing on Overhanging Rock at Glacier Point.  Left to right: Wilson, Harding, Gallwas, Robbins. Note Half Dome in background of both scenes.  (Photos courtesy of Jerry Gallwas.)  C: Left to right: Harding, Gallwas, Robbins, Wilson.  The contrasting body language of Wilson and Harding has been explained by Jerry Gallwas (see youtube video, 3:49) and by Warren Harding (in his book, "Downward Bound", pg. 107 ; Harding 1975).  Robbins and Gallwas returned to Half Dome with Mike Sherrick during the last week of June 1957 to make the first complete ascent of the NW Face (Sherrick 1958; Gallwas, 2007).  Don Wilson was conducting research on squid at the MBL in Woods Hole, MA during the successful 1957 ascent. It's amazing, if nightmarish, to note that Alex Honnold has since completed a ropeless free-solo climb (without any harness or safety equipment) of Half Dome's NW face in 2 hours, 50 min...


I include here some brief excerpts from Don Wilson’s own published descriptions of the three major Desert Tower climbs – Spider Rock, Cleopatra’s Needle and the Totem Pole.  I especially like his approach to the “legend of Spider Rock” as a testable hypothesis.  Both Spider Rock and Totem Pole are fairly well-known landmarks.  Spider Rock appeared in the 1969 Gregory Peck film "Mackenna's Gold", although renamed "Shaking Rock" (see movie clip).  The fifth and final officially permitted ascent of the Totem Pole was in 1975, when two climbers were hired by Clint Eastwood and Universal Studios to locate a suitable rock tower and “put the ropes up” for a climbing sequence in the film “The Eiger Sanction” (Bjørnstad and Wyrick, 1976; Bartlett, 2010).  As part of a deal with the local Navajo council, the climbers removed all existing hardware from the tower at the end of filming, including the can (placed on the summit in 1957) containing the original summit-register of Wilson, Powell, Gallwas and Feuerer. The register now resides in the collection of the Bradford Washburn American Mountaineering Museum, Boulder, Colorado (Gallwas, 2010).

The First Ascent of Spider Rock [Don Wilson (1957) Sierra Club Bulletin 42(6): 45-49]:  “In Canyon de Chelly National Monument in northeastern Arizona is a great sandstone spire. According to the Navajos, who call it Spider Rock, its summit is the home of the Spider Lady.  Navajo children are told that Speaking Rock across the valley informs the Spider Lady of their misdeeds and that she will take them to her home and devour them. The bleached rubble on the summit is supposed to be the bones of bad children.

        Since the truth of this last statement is testable, it was possible to disprove the legend of Spider Rock by examining the rubble at close range.  Of the three tried means of reaching a summit two were impossible here.  It was too small for an air-drop and too far away to throw a rope over.  It could be reached only by classical mountaineering methods in a long-climb from the valley floor.”

        [Spending the night bivouacked on a ledge.]  “…After some canned sausages and gumdrops, we put all our clothing on, and tried to sleep as much as possible, not so much for rest as for shortening the period of consciousness of the cold.  But as large as our ledge was, it was not smooth and a comfortable position was not possible.  We were tied in, of course, to prevent rolling off, and it was this fact that later became dramatized in the newspapers to “they spent the night lashed to the cliff.”  We watched the sunrise and then waited for the sun to hit us before breakfasting.  It was only 200 more feet now.”   

        [On the summit.]  “…During the hour we spent on top we built cairns , piling the “bones” into two little monuments – not worried about our disturbing an old legend.  For some time we enjoyed watching the spectators on the rim watching us.  Meanwhile Aubuchon [the park Superintendant] drove to Chinle, telegraphed our families, and informed the newspapers.  Spider Rock had been climbed.”



Spider Rock, in Canyon de Chelly, AZ, is the tallest free-standing spire in the world (832 feet from the bottomland to the summit; approx. 2/3 the height of the Empire State Building).  First ascent made by Don Wilson, Mark Powell & Jerry Gallwas in March 1956.  Wilson was finishing his MS degree in biology at USC at the time.  A: Spider Rock, photographed from the Overlook by Jerry Gallwas during a 1955 reconnaissance trip.  Inset: Donald Wilson, c.1956-57 (Ascent Collection, courtesy of Steve Roper.)  B: Wilson ascending the “chimney” between the two spires.  C and D: Wilson and Powell on the summit (Wilson on left. Note the shadow of Spider Rock in D).  (All photos except inset in A courtesy of Jerry Gallwas.  Gallwas, 2010)



Cleopatra’s Needle [Don Wilson (1957) Sierra Club Bulletin 42(6): 63-64]:  “For several years we had known about a spectacular spire in New Mexico through pictures advertising a bus company.  As we became familiar with sandstone climbing, we began to inquire where that spire was, how high, how fractured and how soft the sandstone.  We found an article stating that the needle (they called it Spider Rock, possibly confusing it with the one in Canyon de Chelly) was 265 feet high and was in the Valley of Thundering Water near Fort Defiance , Arizona .  Mark Powell visited the valley last spring and brought back an excellent report.”

        [Describing the soft rock and loose pitons.]  “…I unsnapped from my top piton and descended onto the next.  It began to pull out.  Quickly I lowered myself to the next.  It also shifted.  The fourth held my weight but now I could not reach back up to unsnap from the loose ones.  I came down to the ledge knowing that tomorrow’s leader had no pleasant task.”

        [On the summit.]  “... Meanwhile on the summit, a ridge 10 feet long which we straddled, we became aware of a new annoyance.  All around us thunder showers were brewing and we sat on a lightning rod over a plain.  But the clouds dissolved and we had the late afternoon sun as we built a cairn and prepared our rappel anchor.”    


Cleopatra's Needle, in the Valley of Thundering Water, New Mexico.  A: The spire just after the arrival.  First ascent made by Don Wilson, Mark Powell & Jerry Gallwas in September 1956.  B: Another view, showing Wilson climbing up the base shortly after arrival.  Note Don and Nancy Wilson's VW Bug near the base of the spire in both photos.  (Photos courtesy of Jerry Gallwas.  Gallwas, 2010)


The Totem Pole [Don Wilson (1958) Sierra Club Bulletin, vol. 43 (9): 72]:  “Several years of effort came to an end last June when Bill Feuerer joined Jerry Gallwas, Mark Powell and me to complete the first ascent of the Totem Pole in Monument Valley.  This effort began with an agreement between the three to try to climb what they considered to be the three most important of the Southwest’s desert spires: Spider Rock, Cleopatra’s Needle, and the Totem Pole.  At that time none of the desert’s great sandstone spires had been attempted.  Both of the first two were climbed on the first try.  Spider Rock was highest, Cleopatra’s Needle the softest and therefore least safe, but the last turned out to be the most difficult.”

        [Making the summit, the day after placing bolt screws in the rock.]  “…The last morning we drove to the base of the talus in Jerry’s jeep, and a caravan of spectators from the Post followed after breakfast.  On the prussik lines we were harassed by gusts of wind which swung us 30 or 40 feet across the rock face.  We reached the summit after about 13 hours of upward progress spread over the several days.  As we descended, a little rain fell, reminding us of the lightning which had stopped the earlier party.”



Totem Pole in Monument Valley, Utah (June 1957). The first ascent team consisted of Don Wilson, Jerry Gallwas, Mark Powell and Bill “Dolt” Feuerer.  Wilson was then a Ph.D. student in Theodore Bullock’s lab at UCLAA: From a distance, with Navajo looking on.  B: Don Wilson leading a pitch on the afternoon of the first day.  C: Gallwas climbing over the lip of the summit (upper arrow) and Wilson “prusiking” (ascending a rope via a prusik line; lower arrow).  D: Powell leading (upper arrow) with Wilson belaying (lower arrow).  All photos taken by Bill Feuerer (from the Dolt Collection, courtesy of Jerry Gallwas and Don Lauria.)






A: On the 14 x 25-foot summit of the Totem Pole, following the first ascent.  Photo taken by Bill Feuerer.  Left to right: Mark Powell, Don Wilson and Jerry Gallwas.  A tour bus is visible on the desert floor (arrow), just above the rock cairn between Powell and Wilson.  B: Auto-timed shot of all 4 team members on the summit.  Left to right: Powell, Gallwas, Feuerer and Wilson.  Note the puddle in foreground. It had not been raining.  From Jerry Gallwas (pers. commun.): “The picture of the four of us on top of the Totem Pole was taken with Bill Feuerer's camera.  There were 100 people on the ground watching and we needed to pee so we gathered in a circle as if to pray and used the only dimple on top.”  (Dolt Collection, courtesy of Jerry Gallwas.)  




Warming themselves at a campfire during a rainy day in Monument Valley.  Left to right: Mark Powell, Don Wilson, Nancy Wilson. June 1957.  (Dolt Collection.  Courtesy of Jerry Gallwas.)



Campus Activism

While at U.C. Berkeley (1961-68), Wilson became involved in the Free Speech Movement, the aim of which was to give students the right to organize on campus in support of political causes.  He was close friends with its fiery student-leader, Mario Savio, and a number of graduate students and undergraduates in the Wilson lab during the mid-sixties were likewise active in the movement.  Wilson named his laboratory the “Sympathetic Ganglion” (written on a plaque above the door) to indicate solidarity with the FSM (W.J. Davis, pers. comm.) and kept a bullhorn in the lab “with which to address student rallies” (Edwards, 2006).  But political engagement on campus did not trump research progress.  Ingrid Waldron recalled that while Wilson was quietly supportive of her campus political activities for about a year, he then insisted that it was time to get to work and finish her thesis – prodding her to “finish in a respectable five years, instead of six” (I. Waldron, pers. comm.).  In July 1968, Wilson left U.C. Berkeley for Stanford, following a disagreement with his Department Chairman regarding the use of grades to alter military draft status (Mulloney and Smarandache, 2010, footnote 2).   But, his activism continued at Stanford, where W. Jackson Davis (who was then a post-doctoral fellow in Don Kennedy’s Stanford lab) remembered being “first tear-gassed by a helicopter with Don (Wilson)… near the tower.” (W.J. Davis, pers. comm.).



Rafting and the fatal accident

In 1959, Wilson and life-long friend Frank Hoover went rafting together for the first time at Glen Canyon on the Colorado river (Frank Hoover, pers. commun.).  They took to this new adrenaline rush as they had to rock climbing as teenagers, and by 1970, Wilson, Hoover and their circle of friends had navigated a long list of the most challenging white water in the western U.S., including the Rogue river in Oregon (during flood stage), and the Cataract and Grand Canyon legs of the Colorado (Frank Hoover and Ken Boche, pers. commun.; Al Bukowsky's interview with Middle Fork river-guide, Roy Nicholson, 2012; Couture, 1971).  According to most accounts, Wilson's accidental death at the age of 37 occurred on Sunday June 21, 1970 (Couture, 1971; Collins and Nash, 1978), while rafting the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in north central Idaho.  However, it was reported as June 23 in his obituaries (Hoover, 1970; Kennedy et al., 1970).  The river was extremely flooded and especially turbulent that week from recent snow melts, running at speeds up to 15-20 miles per hour with waves as high as 10-20 feet (Couture, 1971; Collins and Nash, 1978; Al Bukowsky, pers. commun.).  Wilson led a party of nineteen people that included Frank Hoover in four of Hoover’s WWII-era 10-man rafts (Hoover, pers. commun.; Collins and Nash, 1978).  Wilson was at the oars of his raft, which had a broken oar-lock.  Only 15-20 minutes after launching near Dagger Falls, they were entering Velvet Falls about 4 miles down-river (below the mouth of Sulphur Creek, where it meets the Middle Fork; see map 1,  map 2), when a member of Wilson's party was ejected from the back of the raft and carried by the water into some brush at the river bank (from Al Bukowsky's interview with Roy Nicholson, 2012; see also recent rafting and kayaking videos of Velvet Falls.)  Seeing this, Wilson ran his raft aground on "an island" or shallow embankment near the opposite shore (Hoover, 1970; Frank Hoover, pers. commun.) and attempted to swim across the river to rescue the crew member with his raft's bow-line tied around his waist, secured on its other end to the raft.  This was a lethal mistake that might have resulted from Wilson's rock-climbing habits and the panic of the moment.  When he entered the river, the powerful current immediately swept him off his feet and pulled him down-stream and under water, taut at the end of the rope.  By the time he was pulled back in, he had already drowned.  The ejected crew member had made it to shore and was unharmed.

     Amongst the devastated survivors, some decided to hike back to the Dagger launch site, while others continued down river with Wilson’s body for another 26 miles to over-night near the Indian Creek Airstrip.  A light aircraft arrived the next day to pick the group up, and Wilson’s ashes were later spread on the Middle Fork (Frank Hoover, pers. commun.; Hoover, 1970; Collins and Nash, 1978; Robbins, 2009).  He was survived by his ex-wife, Nancy, and four children.



Donald Wilson in 1969, during a rafting trip on the Colorado river . A: Cataract Canyon, Glen Canyon National Recreational Area, Utah.  B: Wilson holding the oars, Westwater Canyon, Colorado.  C: With a captured spadefoot toad. (Photos courtesy of Ken Boche).  Wilson’s fatal rafting trip on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho occurred about one year later at “Velvet Falls” (see map), so named because the rapids make little or no sound until you are upon them (Collins and Nash, 1978).


     That same Sunday afternoon of June 21, two other groups launched from Dagger Falls ahead of the Wilson party. Tom Brokaw (the future NBC News anchor) was with a group led by river-guide Everett Spaulding (Brokaw, 1970; Collins and Nash, 1978).  The other party was led by Al Couture (Couture, 1971).  Both groups struggled, but made it safely through Velvet Falls and continued down-river until Thursday June 25.  Neither party learned of Wilson's accident until later.  On Thursday, Brokaw’s close friend Ellis Harmon and Spaulding's associate Gene Teague were both swept away and killed  at Weber Rapid (downstream from the site of Wilson’s accident, referred to by Brokaw as “Webber Falls”) when their McKenzie boat was swamped and sank in the white-water.  Brokaw wrote about it a few months later in an article titled “That river swallows people. Some it gives up. Some it don’t.” (Brokaw, 1970; the title coming from a Spaulding quote).  In the following excerpt from Brokaw's article, he mentioned the fate of a “Stanford professor” (Wilson):  “That week the Middle Fork and the main Salmon swallowed six people.  On the main Salmon two U.S. Forest Service employees drowned when their pickup truck was forced off the road into the river, and a Detroit teenager was swept away when his kayak capsized.  A Stanford professor drowned in the Middle Fork when he attempted to cross the river while attached to a rope.  At the time we were unaware of the deaths.  When word of our accident spread, two parties behind us which included Sir Edmund Hillary, the conqueror of Mt. Everest, and Frank Gifford, the sportscaster and former football star, got out of the river at the Flying B Ranch.”  The Couture party was the only one of the three groups that launched on Sunday to make it through the trip without a fatality.  In the Outdoor Life article that Al Couture published several months later (Couture, 1971), he described seeing one of the bodies from the Spaulding group float by in a life preserver near the Cradle Creek campground while he and his party were pulling their boats in to a quiet backwater.  Gene Teague was never found.

    The Middle Fork has more than forty sets of rapids, but when flooded by spring snow-melts, it becomes essentially one continuous rapid along its whole length, from Dagger Falls to the confluence with the greater Salmon River.  A few summers later (June 1974), the U.S. Forest Service warned that any attempt to run the flooded Middle Fork was “suicidal” (Collins and Nash, 1978).  The third week of June 1970 was the deadliest in the river’s modern history, and remains infamous amongst Middle Fork rafting guides (Al Bukowsky, pers. commun.).




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Wilson, D.M. (1961b) The connections between the lateral giant fibers of earthworms. Comp. Biochem. Physiol. 3: 274-284.  

Wilson, D.M. (1965) Proprioceptive leg reflexes in cockroaches. J. Exp. Biol. 43: 397-409.

Wilson, D.M.  (1966)  Central nervous mechanisms for the generation of rhythmic behaviour in arthropods. SEB Symposia 20: 199-228.

Wilson, D.M.  (1967)  Stepping patterns in tarantula spiders.  J. Exp. Biol. 47: 133-151.

Wilson, D.M.  (1968a)  Inherent asymmetry and reflex modulation of the locust flight motor pattern. J. Exp. Biol. 48:631-641.

Wilson, D.M.  (1968b)  The flight-control system of the locust.  Scientific Amer. 218 (5): 83-90.

Wilson, D.M. and Gettrup, E.  (1963)  A stretch reflex controlling wingbeat frequency in grasshoppers. J. Exp. Biol. 40: 171-185.

Wilson, D.M. and Waldron, I. (1968)  Models for the generation of the motor output pattern in flying locusts. Proc. IEEE 56 (6): 1058-1064.  

Wilson, D.M. and Weis-Fogh, T. (1962) Patterned activity of co-ordinated motor units, studied in flying locusts. J. Exp. Biol. 39: 643-667.

Wilson, D.M. and Wyman, R.J. (1965)  Motor output patterns during random and rhythmic stimulation of locust thoracic ganglia.  Biophys. J. 5: 121-143.


Climbing and Rafting

Bartlett, S.  (2010)  Desert Towers : Fat Cat Summits and Kitty Litter Rock. Sharp End Publishing LLC, Boulder, CO. (See pp.37-75.)

Bjørnstad, E. and Wyrick  (1976)  The Totem Pole and the Eiger Sanction. Summit 12 (No.3; June 1976).

Breed, J.  (1958)  Better days for the Navajos. The National Geographic Magazine, vol. CXIV, No.6 (December). (Discussion and photos of Totem Pole 1st ascent on pp. 830-831.)

Brokaw, T.  (1970)  “That river swallows people. Some it gives up. Some it don’t.” West (Nov. 1) 11-18.  Re-printed in: River Reflections: A Collection of River Writings, edited by Verne Huser. 3rd edition, Univ. of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque.

Burton, H.  (1956)  They risk their lives for fun. Sat. Evening Post 228 (Issue 35, Feb. 25): 34-102.

Collins, R.O. and Nash, R.  (1978)  The Big Drops: Ten Legendary Rapids. Ch. 6: Redside. Sierra Club Books, San Fransisco, pp. 117-118.  

Couture, A.E.  (1971)  Death ran with the river. Outdoor Life (May Issue).

Gallwas, G.  (2007) Half Dome:  First ascent of the North West Face.  (Prepared for the 50th Anniversary Reunion of the First Ascent, 1957.) Unpublished PDF, 83 pp.

Gallwas, G.  (2010) The Desert Spires:  Spider Rock, Cleopatra’s Needle, & the Totem Pole. (Introduction and personal recollections with original articles, pictures, and selected reading materials.  Unpublished PDF, 52 pp.  

Harding, W.  (1975)  Downward Bound: A Mad! Guide To Rock Climbing. Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, NJ., pgs. 107 and 197.

Hoover, F.  (1970)  Donald M. Wilson – Obituary.  Mugelnoos – rock climbing newsletter (July 15) p.4.

Jones, C. (1976)  The Southern Californians   From: Climbing in North America . University of California Press, Los Angeles , 1976. pgs. 197-212.

Robbins, R. (2009)  To Be Brave. Pink Moment Press, Ojai, CA., p. 208.  

Robbins, R. (2010) Fail Falling. Pink Moment Press, Ojai, CA.

Roper, S. (1970) Four corners. Ascent 1(Number 4, May): 26-36.  

Roper, S. (1994) Camp 4: Recollections of a Yosemite Rock Climber. The Mountaineers (publ.), Seattle, WA.

Sherrick, M.P. (1958) The northwest face of Half Dome. Sierra Club Bulletin 43 (9): 19-23. Climber’s Forum:

Wilson , D.M. (1957a) The first ascent of spider rock. Sierra Club Bulletin 42 (6): 45-49.

Wilson, D.M. (1957b) Cleopatra’s Needle. Sierra Club Bulletin 42 (6): 63-64.

Wilson , D.M. (1958) The Totem Pole. Sierra Club Bulletin 43 (9): 72.

Wilts, C. and Wilson, D.M. (1956) Climber’s Guide to Tahquitz Rock. American Alpine Club, New York, NY, 36 pp.



Grateful thanks to many gracious people in and around academia who shared their recollections of Don Wilson, including his widow, Nancy Wilson, Robert Wyman (Yale Univ.), W. Jackson Davis (UC Santa Cruz, Emeritus), John S. Edwards (Univ. Washington) and Ingrid Waldron (Univ. of Penn.).  Special thanks to Frank Hoover (Wilson’s life-long friend and climbing / rafting partner), who very generously permitted me to interview him over the phone on several occasions while he recuperated from an auto accident.  Thanks also to Jerry Gallwas (Conqueror of Half-Dome!; made many important climbs with Wilson in the 1950s) Steve Roper, Ken Boche (rafted with Wilson and Hoover in 1969), Fred Martin (long-time friend and rock-climbing partner of Wilson and Hoover) and Don Lauria of the rock-climbing Diaspora, for permission to use their photographs and remembrances.  Finally, thanks to Middle Fork river-guide, Al Bukowsky (Solitude River Trips) for answering my many questions, giving me an authentic, dog-chewed copy of Outdoor Life magazine from 1971 containing Al Couture's article, and providing me with a copy of his 2012 interview with fellow Middle Fork river-guide, Roy Nicholson.