Obituary: Owen J. Sexton, professor emeritus of biology, 91

Owen Sexton

Owen J. Sexton, professor emeritus of biology in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, died May 31, 2018, at his home in St. Louis County from complications of dementia, which he had battled for several years. He was 91.

Sexton was a professor at Washington University from 1956 to 1998 and a key advocate for the purchase of the 2,000-acre Tyson Research Center property in 1963.

A wildlife biologist and ecologist, Sexton studied ecosystems throughout Central and Latin America and other parts of the world, including Missouri and the Midwest. His research interests included amphibians, reptiles and the endangered collared lizard in the state’s glades and prairies.

In the 1960s, his turtle egg studies were instrumental in identifying the effects of runoff pollutants on wildlife breeding and population dynamics. During The Great Mississippi and Missouri Rivers Flood of 1993, Sexton provided expertise in population ecology to help manage the devastation to local wildlife. He was a founding member of the Missouri Prairie Foundation.

Sexton served as director of Tyson Research Center from 1996-99. In June 2010, the center hosted a tribute to Sexton attended by many of his former students. At the event, Sexton said, “I started running around in the woods when I was 5, and I’ve never stopped. I’ve never seen any reason to stop.”

A summer 1971 Washington Magazine feature article, “Twentieth Century Walden,” said that Sexton took the lead in bringing students from all backgrounds to Tyson — including not only those specializing in ecology and biology, but also those whose interest in science was strictly an avocation. “The reaction of students reared in the city when they get out and see animals is really spectacular,” Sexton said.

He was born in Philadelphia in 1926 and grew up in Merchantville, N.J. He enlisted in the Army during World War II, where he served in northern Italy. After the war, he earned his undergraduate degree from Oberlin College in 1951 and his PhD at the University of Michigan in 1956.

Sexton is survived by his wife of 66 years, Mildred Sexton (nee Bloomsburg); their four children, Ken, Jean, Ann and Carolyn; as well as eight grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.

At Sexton’s request, there will be no funeral service. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests memorials may be made to the Owen Sexton Research Fund at Washington University, Campus Box 1082, One Brookings Drive, St. Louis, MO 63130-4899. A fellowship in Sexton’s name has supported undergraduate summer researchers at Tyson Research Center since its inception in 2004.

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