Skip to main content
Skip to main content

John W.(Jack) Winchester, 1929-2020.

Jack Winchester’s scientific career started with becoming an undergraduate student majoring in chemistry at the University of Chicago in 1947 and obtaining a Baccalaureate degree in 1950 and a Masters degree in 1952. He moved on to MIT for a PhD in nuclear chemistry which he received in 1955. MIT was at the forefront of nuclear chemistry and had, and still has, its own nuclear reactor right in Cambridge. During his PhD he attracted the attention of Pat Hurley, a professor in the Geology and Geophysics department at MIT and Hurley promised Jack a faculty position.
After his PhD Jack first spent a year at the Institute for Nuclear Research in Amsterdam, The Netherlands as a Fulbright Scholar. He always talked fondly about his short stint in the Netherlands and even after sixty years he still was able to recall Dutch words. He returned to MIT and became an assistant professor of geochemistry and later associate professor of geochemistry. His research involved elemental analysis of natural materials by neutron activation . At MIT Jack was co-author on a paper with Coryell that defined how we display and interpret rare earth element data which is now called the Coryell-Masuda normalization. His first publication that could be argued to be related to oceanography was in 1961 on the solubility of zinc in calcium carbonate and its relevance to marine chemistry. In 1963 he published a paper on chromatographic separation of rare earth elements which now is widely used for neodymium isotope analysis. His first publication relevant to atmospheric science was in 1963 and discussed atmospheric iodine, bromine and chloride. From that time on Jack’s publications are mostly on the chemistry of aerosols and their effects on lake and ocean chemistry. With this he also made the transition to environmental issues and especially airborne pollution. He was recruited to the Department of Meteorology and Oceanography at the University of Michigan to strengthen the oceanography component of that department. He moved to Michigan in 1967 where he was an associate professor of Oceanography and assistant director of the Great Lakes Research Division. Jack advised students in his home department as well as students in the School of Public Health. His tenure at the University was only for three years after which he was recruited to come to FSU by Bob Harris who contacted Jack about the opportunity.

The Oceanography department at Florida State University was not doing well in the eyes of the administration and the Dean of Arts and Sciences at the time, Bob Lawton, appointed Jack as the department chair with the advice “have a nose for excellence”. Jack arrived at FSU in May of 1970. This was a big change for Jack; not only did his administrative responsibilities significantly increase, but he also lost easy access to a nuclear reactor that he needed for his analytical technique of choice: instrumental neutron activation analysis. However, the FSU Physics department had a Van de Graaf accelerator that enabled PIXE, proton induced X-ray emission, analysis on small samples. This technique worked well for Jack’s research on aerosols and atmospheric chemistry. In the meantime, Jack started rebuilding the Oceanography department and in a period of five years he turned the department around and made it into a thriving department. In an interview in 2006 Jack was asked how he achieved this. He answered that is was not one particular thing; but it is clear that he was able to make the hard decisions in a gentle way. At the end of those five years he stepped down as department chair and returned to research and teaching. Although there was no undergraduate degree in oceanography, Jack started teaching an undergraduate course in oceanography and later developed an undergraduate course focused on the science behind global warming based on the book by renowned Columbia University professor Wallace Broecker entitled “How to Build a Habitable Planet”. These were very popular courses and are still taught in some form today at FSU. Jack had a strong research program that included many foreign visitors that came to use his PIXE instrument. He kept his lab running through grants from the EPA, NSF and DOE.
Jack retired from FSU at the end of the Spring semester of 2003. During his 47-year long career he advised twenty-three PhD students and ten MSc students. He received Fulbright grants to study in the Netherlands, China, and Argentina and he was a visiting professor in Sweden, Belgium, China, France, South Africa and Japan. Jack also served on numerous advisory or review panels including several of the National Academy of Sciences.

Some of Jack’s former students have risen to prominence in their field including Mark Thiemens, one of his early students at FSU, who is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, and Jean-Guy Schilling, one of his early graduate students at MIT who received AGU’s Ewing medal in 1996. In his acceptance speech Schilling remarked on Jack that he “has a knack of building his students’ confidence”. Being able to listen and to be fully engaged are qualities that made Jack successful not only as a scientist but also as an advisor and mentor. Throughout his career, Jack has mentored students and faculty in a compassionate way, unselfish with his time and effort. His care and concern for his profession also made him a big benefactor to FSU and the department. His contributions were not only monetary but also intellectual as his inquisitive mind was always busy and always engaging people. In 2011, Jack established the John W. and Ellen Winchester Fund for Excellence in Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Geochemistry (aka the Winchester Fund). Over the next 9 years, Jack donated over $870,000 which has helped support the research activity of dozens of students and faculty in EOAS. Jack’s donations (“investments” as he preferred to call them ) have allowed students to go to conferences, do field work, and do those extra things for which there is no regular avenue of support. It has supported new faculty by providing grad student support in addition to their regular start-up funds. Jack will be missed, first and foremost for his compassion for science, scientists, and the environment and his curiosity and mentorship. Thank you, Jack, for your many significant contributions to the students and faculty in Oceanography and EOAS.

Taken when the Smartflower (donated by Dr.Winchester) was installed just over one year ago.

Dr. Winchester at the EOAS Building opening

Below are some of the reactions from other people touched by Jack:

Kathleen Sullivan: I was a young teen when Jack married my mother – not an easy time to take on a daughter, but he was crazy about my mother and approached me with the same enthusiastic encouraging interest that he has always shown his students. He coached me through math and taught me how to drive the prized new Volkswagen. Jack was the one who drove me back and forth to and from my New England college on many weekends when I was discouraged and homesick. He supported every life choice that I made, even when my mother could not.
In Florida, Jack tolerated my mother’s frequent absences as she traveled on behalf of the Sierra Club. They did not turn on the air conditioning for many years. He became my mother’s caregiver when she developed dementia and they listened to classical music together, holding hands, in her residence every weekday until she passed away.
Jack had an enduring faith in the capacity of “THE DEPARTMENT” to lead and influence positive environmental stewardship at home and abroad. In his last conversation with me, from his hospital bed, he was very excited about new ideas that he could not wait to share. The Department was his intellectual, emotional, and, in many ways, spiritual home, to the end.
I am grateful to all of Jack’s colleagues and students, who enriched his life over decades, and to Florida State University.

Shao-Meng Li (PhD graduate): In the early days of China reentering the world stage, the Institute of Atmospheric Physics, where I was a new graduate student, decided to send me to the US to study atmospheric chemistry with Prof. John Winchester. Despite me knowing little about Jack and his work, Jack was already working with scientists from IAP since 1980 and a true pioneer in the early days of US-China relations. In May of 1983, after preparation, I came to Tallahassee where Jack would be awaiting my arrival. I immediately experienced Jack’s hospitality and kindness when he took me to a nearby grocery store to buy food following the drive from the airport! He then set me up in a house which he had rented on my behalf. This was how I started my student life in Tallahassee, with Jack extending a warm welcome.
From then to 1989, I studied under Jack’s guidance on atmospheric chemistry. Jack was a great mentor and teacher not only on the subjects of study and research, but also on literature and classical music. He always took a gentle and patient approach to students like me who were new to the US, never exerting a moment of pressure, and allowing plenty of freedom for students to explore on their own. He showed us what a true gentleman was like, respecting his colleagues, students, and supporting staff. He was always enthusiastic about life and work and possessed an inquisitive mind about all things scientific and cultural, weaving them into interesting scientific publications. As an example, at his suggestion and guidance we published a paper in early 1980s on the potentials for methane emissions from agricultural practices in China. This work would combine my own personal experiences living the China’s countryside, an idea ahead of its time. I have always been thankful that I studied under his guidance. Having graduated from FSU over 30 years ago, and becoming a mentor myself, I still adhere to a similar mentoring style for my younger colleagues and students as Jack did when I was his student, and I truly believe it is a best way to pass on one’s learning to the next generation.

Wang Ying (Shao-Meng Li’s wife): When I was 23 I arrived in Florida to join Shao-Meng in early February 1985. Ever hospitable, Jack and Ellen invited us for dinner the week after I arrived at Tallahassee. That night was the beginning of a 35 year long relationship with the Winchesters full of warmth, levity and affection.
In the first 5 years, Ellen would help me with my English once a week. During our evening lessons, we talked about North America and Chinese histories, cultures and politics as well as our own lives, families, interests, values, and even husbands. When Shao-Meng was out of town, they would invite me to stay with them. It was during these times where I came to know them well. I found them thirsty for knowledge and information, eager to learn and open to discussion. From the start of each morning reading newspapers to the end of each day reading books and magazines, they constantly quested for what they did not know. They were also very concerned about the environment and our impacts on nature. Where Ellen might worry, Jack would be optimistic, believing in a better future and taking on challenges with the aim to make our future brighter. While they had strong political standings, they were open minded people who respected other people’s opinions. At a young age, starting a new life in a new country, I was heavily influenced by Jack and Ellen. I learned to be kind and truthful to others, to be respectful to nature, and to be responsible for the environment.
In 1990, Shao-Meng, myself and our one-year old daughter moved to Toronto, Canada. As luck would have it, Jack and Ellen’s daughter, Kathy, lives in Toronto while my sister settled her life in Tallahassee. Every few years, while visiting their daughter, they would join us for dinner at our home, which was returned in kind on our own visits to Tallahassee. When we got together, Jack and Shao-Meng would discuss their work and the ladies would catch up on life and family. Distance never set us apart. As the years have progressed, Kathy has become a dear friend to our family whom we continuously connect with.
In the early 2000s, I began to notice changes in our interactions during one Christmas. Ellen did not speak with me directly; instead, Jack would talk with me over the phone. A year later, during a regular visit to Tallahassee, we learned that Ellen had Alzheimer’s disease. Following the discovery Ellen and Jack would no longer be able to travel to Toronto. Despite this, we could see that Jack had totally devoted himself to care for Ellen. Throughout the progression of Ellen’s condition Jack remained by her side, first at home and later in a nursing home, all the while remaining connected to her. He would visit her every day at the nursing home, finding novel ways to interact with Ellen and bring joy to her days. Music was one aspect of their lives they always bonded over, and when he learned that music could improve the condition of a patient with Alzheimer’s, he would play music for Ellen every day.
After Ellen passed away in December 2009, Jack traveled to Toronto several times to see Kathy and to visit us. We would also see him in Tallahassee. In all that time we saw that the good old Jack had not changed. His mind remained very sharp, always inquiring about subjects he had recently read about and constantly fascinated by the next topic or issue. He was still interested in so many things, new ideas and old projects. His passion for making the world a better place was stronger than ever. That is how we want to remember Jack! Jack may be gone, but his legacy lives on in the work he tirelessly poured over, the students he mentored, and the families he has been so generous to.

William Landing (Emeritus Professor, EOAS): I arrived at the FSU Department of Oceanography in the fall of 1985, fresh off a postdoc year in Sweden, and Jack immediately welcomed me into his office for a chat. Jack and I talked frequently during my first few years especially about how biologically-essential trace elements made their way to the open ocean from atmospheric dust deposition. He had already been working on the acid rain problem, and he hypothesized that acidification of dust aerosols would enhance the solubility of essential trace elements, especially iron. Jack encouraged me to take aerosol and rain sampling equipment to sea on research cruises and this led to 20+ years of aerosol and rainfall sampling covering every major ocean basin. Jack’s insights and encouragement played a major role in my research successes and those of my grad students. Jack was extremely dedicated to our department and to our students, and I worked closely with Jack and the FSU Foundation to establish the John W. and Ellen Winchester Fund for Excellence in Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Geochemistry (aka the Winchester Fund) in 2011. The Winchester Fund has supported FSU student research all over the world and has allowed our newest faculty to recruit and support excellent new grad students to jump-start their research programs. Jack will be sorely missed but the Winchester Fund will continue to serve as a reminder of Jack’s love for students at FSU.

Peter L. Morton (Assistant Researcher, NHMFL and EOAS): Jack Winchester is known around FSU and EOAS for his boundless generosity and infectious enthusiasm. My first introduction to him was during weekly departmental seminars, where he would always engage the speaker – student or faculty or guest – with enthusiasm on their topic, asking interesting questions that gave opportunities for the speaker to shine. I think that is the key to Jack’s personality: he had a gift for enabling people to shine. He always found a way to inspire you or to turn a setback into a new idea or direction. He knew enough about everyone’s research to ask smart questions, and he was wise enough to sit and listen when necessary. He believed that personal connections were essential, and he never lost sight of the importance of the individual when it came to great discoveries and advances. Jack wanted to equip every person to reach their potential. And while I have benefitted from Jack’s generosity in numerous ways, including the Winchester Fund, it is his friendship that I’ll miss the most. My hope is that I was able to spend enough time around Jack during these last few years for his personality and generosity to rub off on me, so that I can be the same sort of “sage” to others that he was to me.
Olivia Mason (Associate Professor in EOAS): My research program has directly benefited from his generosity. For example, I have received Winchester Funds to support graduate students, to support student travel to give presentations at international conferences, and even to participate in research cruises in Namibia. He will be missed.

Stephanie McColaugh (EOAS graduate student): The first time I met Jack was upon my return from a research trip to Greenland, which would not have been possible without support from the Winchester Fund. I walked through the door of his home and was immediately hit with a wave of humidity. Jack however, was in the midst of an experiment because he had read a paper stating that the human body adapts to a new “normal” temperature in several weeks, and besides, it supported his environmental ideals. After settling onto his couch, welcomed with the warmest hospitality and even warmer tea, I began my first conversation with Jack Winchester. We discussed my trip to Greenland, the Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Science Department, the environment, politics, his family, and his career. His positivity, curiosity, enthusiasm, and candor were contagious. Following that discussion, Jack, in what I would come to know was his typical fashion, sent out an email to the department to follow up with my observations, both positive and constructive, and offered a few suggestions. While initially abashed but frankly also amused, I have come to respect that Jack was a man so principled there was not a word he would say behind closed doors that he would not publicly declare and advocate for. Through the subsequent years, with each conversation and check in with Jack I learned something new. Whether that was about his love of classical music, his years in China, or a new period of history he was focusing on learning everything he could about. His quest for knowledge, advocacy, and connectedness was truly unparalleled.
I was only one of many students that Jack helped pursue their research goals, and I never quite found a proper way to thank him. I did try…upon that first visit I brought him a framed picture of the glacier I had studied, only to learn he was nearly blind. It did not take long though to realize that people like Jack do not need sight to have vision. Through Jack’s encouragement, vivacity, and commitment to uplifting others, so many people were able to achieve their own visions. Florida State University was so fortunate to have had Jack as a mentor, professor, and patron, and now as part of its legacy. May we carry his passion for science and philanthropy forward in our own lives.

Colette Clarke (wife of EOAS professor Allan Clarke): For many years I did not know Jack very well, but about 13 or 14 years ago, I learned about his kindness and care up close. When my father was in the same memory care facility as his wife, Jack reached out to include my father in his visits to the facility. Jack and his wife loved classical music, and he devised a way to have his wife and my father both enjoy listening to many recordings of classical musicians. Even though both Jack’s wife and my father were struggling to respond, it was clear from their demeanor and expressions that the music gave them peace and joy – a gentle gift they well deserved as their health declined. Jack also made CD recordings of some music for me too. I really valued knowing him, especially with the strain of dealing with the most tragic decline of our loved ones. He will indeed be missed and remembered for the many contributions he has made.

Tim McGann (EOAS Undergraduate advisor): I was impressed that he sat through one of Graduate Oceanography courses just because of his interest and love for science. He always had interesting points to offer and was an “outside the box” thinker.

George Young (Professor of Meteorology, Penn State): Jack recruited me as a “post-fresh” towards the end of my freshman year. I worked for him throughout the rest of my undergrad years, learning a tremendous amount from Jack, his post docs and his grad students. It was Jack who convinced me that being a professor at a research university would be fun. The high point of my undergraduate career was piloting a single-engine Cessna with Jack as passenger, leading a trio of instrumented aircraft on an air sampling mission. Jack also sent me out into the Gulf of Mexico miles off Shell Point in his canoe, taking an international visitor out to get sea surface film samples. He could laugh and get you to do things you never knew you could do. My life would never have taken the path it did without his guidance and infectious enthusiasm. I would say he will be missed, but much of him still walks in each of us whose careers he touched.