MDI Biological Laboratory

Leader, Mentor, Friend: John N. Forrest, Jr., M.D.

  • March 27, 2024

The MDI Bio Lab community is remembering one of its most beloved leaders, Dr. John N. Forrest, Jr., M.D., who passed away on March 19. 

“Hundreds of Dr. Forrest’s trainees and colleagues at MDI Bio Lab and far beyond will be deeply saddened by this news,” said Laboratory President Hermann Haller, M.D. “We will always think of him with great affection and gratitude, for the goodwill and intelligence he brought to the many roles he played in our lives –  as a vital scientific partner, life-changing mentor and visionary leader.”

Trained at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Forrest began his career in 1969 as Chief Resident at Yale’s Department of Medicine. He soon accepted a second residency with Franklin H. Epstein, M.D., and eventually established his own research group at the University’s Division of Nephrology, where he remained until retiring in 2020.

John Forrest with summer students

It was Epstein who first brought Dr. Forrest to Salisbury Cove, in the summer of 1970 – the beginning of his 46-year partnership with the Lab. At first, he and his wife Catherine lived in tents on land they bought near campus; in 1989 they built a home on the island. Dr. Forrest would go on to serve as the Laboratory’s Director in the crucial years of 1998 to 2009.

Much of his research at the Lab focused on what was then its signature model for comparative biology, the dogfish shark, with an emphasis on hormonal signal transduction and potassium and chloride channels related to its salt gland – work that advanced the understanding of human disease.

And while Dr. Forrest’s scientific achievements will live into the future, so will his place in the hearts of the many people he introduced to the essential tasks and enduring satisfactions of comparative biology and biomedical science.

One mentee from the 1990s, Cinda Scott, Ph.D., said in a recent article that his guidance and support inspired her decision to pursue a life in science.

“Dr. Forrest always made us feel like we were all important, across the board,” she said. “I very much use that in my work today.”

His support for the Laboratory as an institution proved just as lasting. During his tenure as Director, Dr. Forrest and staff secured new state and federal funding, building the framework for the Laboratory’s transformation into the year-round research institution it’s become. He led the establishment of the Center for Marine Genomic Studies and oversaw the construction of the Martha and Wistar Morris research facility, which was a pillar of the Laboratory’s expansion.

John Forrest in the lab

Dr. Forrest was a dogged recruiter as well. Edward Benz, Jr., M.D., the Vice-Chairman of the MDI Bio Lab’s Board of Trustees, former President of Dana–Farber Cancer Institute and longtime Visiting Scientist at the Lab, said the news was poignant for him and his family.

“It was John who first invited me to MDIBL and who overcame my reluctance to leave my very busy lab at Yale for a major part of the summer. His enthusiasm for the lab and the island were enormously beneficial to the lab,” Benz said. “And, of course he must always be remembered as coach, GM, and personnel chief of the Lab’s world class softball team.”

“Our father truly cherished Mount Desert Island and the Biological Laboratory. Summers at the lab were where he was most in his element, finding pure joy in research surrounded by nature. The early days for anyone working in his lab meant sharks, chloridometers, and for us as his kids our first job as a dishwasher, and it also meant that anyone in the lab was expected to become a master at putting up large Eureka tents! The friendships he developed there lasted his entire life. His time as Director of the lab resulted in some of his proudest accomplishments. He loved and held dear the opportunities he had to mentor and work with so many young and brilliant minds.”

John, Gwendolyn and Suzanne Forrest

As a family obituary notes, John N. Forrest, Jr., M.D., passed away peacefully on March 19th at his home in New Haven, Conn., surrounded by his family.

Dr. Forrest was born in Tamaqua, Pennsylvania, to John and Nell Forrest in July of 1938. He attended Ursinus College, where he majored in biology, served as class president for four years, and played both offensive and defensive end on the football team before attending medical school at the University of Pennsylvania.

After medical school, Dr. Forrest served his country as an epidemic intelligence service officer with the U.S. Public Health Service doing work on cholera in Bangladesh and in Boston, where he met Catherine Kiene, who would become his wife.

Our deepest sympathies go to the Forrest family, who have themselves been true friends to the Laboratory and the community of Bar Harbor.

We will share the Laboratory’s plans for celebrating Dr. Forrest’s life and achievements as they become available.