Obituary: David Leighton

Great grandfather, marine biologist, author, musician, comic


Marine biologist and respected authority on abalone aquaculture, David Leonhardt Leighton, died in his sleep in the early morning hours of November 1, 2017 in Arroyo Grande, California, at the age of 84. His son, Christopher Scott Leighton, was by his side.

Born in Pomona, on January 5, 1933 to Wesley G. and Anna “Louise” Leonhardt Leighton, Mr. Leighton spent his childhood in Claremont. As a boy, he spent time running trap lines in the foothills above his home near Pomona College. He became fascinated with wildlife, and as a teenager enjoyed hiking and fly-fishing in the high Sierras with friends and family.

Mr. Leighton’s interests in the sciences only grew from there. He earned a bachelor of science degree in zoology from Pomona College, where he joined his father’s fraternity, Nu Alpha Phi. It was at Pomona College that he met and later married Patricia Boney.

Mr. Leighton volunteered for service in the US Army, and was on active duty from 1954 to 1956. He was stationed in Munich, Germany, where he ran the hematology lab and blood bank. 

In 1957, Mr. Leighton enrolled in the master’s program at UCLA on the GI Bill, studying invertebrate zoology. There he began his field research project on growth and nutrition of the black abalone, and the same time, became research assistant for his major professor, Richard Boolootian. “His studies dealt with reproductive cycles of purple sea urchins; thus, my work involved dissections and measurements of gonad volumes and associated indices for a series of urchin populations up and down the west coast,” Mr. Leighton wrote in a family biography.

Mr. Leighton’s daughter, Karen Leighton Strickland, recalled her father would sit on a bucket on the backyard lawn, with another bucket full of sea urchins that he just cultivated on a dive, and using scissors, would split them open. “He had to cut out the gonads and measure them, then he would eat them, which really turned my stomach,” she said. “But we would all laugh! He was a comic.”

Before completing his term in the army reserves in 1962, he returned to Claremont to continue his education, earning a general secondary teaching credential from Claremont Graduate School.

While in graduate school Mr. Leighton played the banjo in a small jazz group, The Storyville Stompers.

“That was fun, and we often made a few bucks playing for gatherings,” he wrote. “The most wonderful times were on field trips into the desert or mountains to collect lizards, snakes and kangaroo rats, or to study the geology and flora. One extended field trip took us all the way to Michigan to study botanical ecology.”

He would go on to earn a master’s degree in invertebrate zoology from UCLA, and his PhD from Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

His academic studies and ongoing research set forth a trajectory that involved Mr. Leighton in foundational research and discoveries in marine biology, particularly in the culture and biology of abalone. He and his business partners started the Abalone Farm in Cayucos in 1967, and it is still in operation today. He spent many more years in Carlsbad, where he introduced abalone culture to the Carlsbad Aquafarm. He dedicated most of his life to the cultivation and preservation of the California red and green abalones, and his successful efforts became the inspiration for continued research in California and around the world.

“One of his favorite pastimes was doing full moon abalone spawnings,” his daughter Karen recalled. “It was simply in his blood. His passion was abalone, and this is why he also went by the moniker ‘Dr. Abalone.’ He made such an impact on the lives of others. He will not be forgotten for his loving spirit will be with us forever.”

Among countless scientific articles he wrote or edited, Mr. Leighton’s life’s research is captured in his book, The Biology and Culture of the California Abalones. He also co-authored a children’s book, The Three Little Dinosaurs, with his daughter Karen.

Mr. Leighton’s legacy in his field of research has been rightfully lauded by his peers, but perhaps fewer people know how uniquely artistic, musically talented, and comically gifted he was, his family shared. He was lighthearted yet careful, and had a truly kind soul. Another favorite past time was listening to Dixieland jazz, going to folk music festivals, playing the banjo and keyboard, and doing his Algimar ART, where he would embed seaweed in resin to make coasters and trivets.

He was preceded in death by his sister, Cynthia Leighton Bevens.

Mr. Leighton is survived by his brother Charles D. Leighton; his four children, Karen Leighton Strickland, Christopher Scott Leighton, Debora Elaine Leighton and David Brian Leighton; daughter in-law Stephanie Leighton; his first wife, Patricia Grieco; his second wife, Dr. Carol Young; two grandchildren, Andrew and Hope Strickland; one great grandchild, Julian Branch Strickland, and many extended family members.

He requested that no funeral or memorial services be held in his name. His wishes were to be cremated, and that his “cremains” be scattered in the desert east of Indio, in the Chuckwalla Mountains.


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