By the time he had finished just two of his five decades of scientific inquiry, Laurence Irving had studied so many animals that a couple colleagues suggested "Noah's Ark would have been an appropriate location in the space-time continuum" for the researcher.
During his lifetime, Irving studied everything from the oxygen content in the blood of diving seals to the distribution of ptarmigan in Alaska's Brooks Range.
If there was a unifying theme, though, it was study of the physiological responses of animals, including humans, to cold.
That led him and collaborator Per Scholander, a Swedish physiologist who later became his son-in-law, to found what became the Naval Arctic Research Laboratory in Barrow, now Utqiaġvik, in the late 1940s. He then became the first director of the Institute of Arctic Biology in at the University of Alaska in 1962.
William Dawson of the University of Michigan, in a 2006 paper, described one interesting experiment at the university: "Two male student members of a religious community who, in the interests of simplicity, went only lightly clothed and shod outdoors in the Alaskan winter gave Irving an opportunity to study facets of acclimatization of Caucasians to cold." Irving compared these students with others who bundled up and found the lightly clad students experienced less pain when exposed to cold.
Irving also studied the effects of cold on Indigenous Alaskans, finding that "Inuits and Indians differed from Caucasian controls in maintaining warmer hands in cold tests," Dawson wrote.
Irving's collaborations with Indigenous Alaskans went far beyond such observations, though. He used local observers in his scientific work first in Barrow and later at Anaktuvuk Pass. There, he teamed up with Simon Paneak to study ptarmigan and other animals.
"The initial employer-employee relationship of these two soon blossomed into a partnership that extended over 25 years and came to involve a fast friendship," Dawson wrote.
Irving retired in 1966, but he and his wife remained in Fairbanks. Irving was active in scientific work until his death in Fairbanks in 1979. IAB named a lecture series for Irving and Scholander in 1981, and the institute's building on West Ridge also bears his name.
More online about Laurence Irving:
- A biography at the Institute of Arctic Biology's website, and the annual Irving-Scholander Lecture Series website
- A biography of Per Scholander that describes his collaboration with Irving
- A review of Irving and Scholander's scientific contributions, written by Robert Elsner, former director of the UAF Institute of Marine Science
- William Dawson's lengthy 2006 review of Irving's work (PDF)