Biographical sketch of Victor Gershon Duran

Compiled by Stephen Sharnoff, April, 2008

Victor Duran was born on March 31, 1897 in London, England. He came from a prosperous and strict Jewish family in London and was named after Queen Victoria, because he was born in the year of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee. The family lived in a prosperous part of London and was in the picture framing and antiques business.

Victor and his family moved to Los Angeles in 1904, and he remained a resident of California for the rest of his life. From boyhood on he was a diligent student, collector of plants and insects, a hiker and wilderness camper, mechanic, carpenter and cabinetmaker, machinist and photographer. The insect collection he made in his younger years still exists, housed in the beautiful mahogany and brass cabinet he built to hold it. A genuine naturalist, he combined a passionate love of the out-of-doors with careful and systematic study of its life forms.

Victor graduated from Los Angeles High School in 1915, and for a while attended Los Angeles Junior College. He received a B.A. in physics with honors from U.C. Berkeley in 1926, and an M.A. in physics in 1928, but he also included Botany and Entomology in his studies. He was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and to Sigma Xi.

After 1928 he switched his primary field of interest to Botany and did extensive field studies in the White Mountains, becoming a collector for the U.C. herbarium.

A Flora of the White Mountains, California and Nevada is dedicated to him, saying, in the dedication, "Duran pursued a study of the floristic composition of the White Mountains from 1926 to 1933, making numerous trips to the area, collecting 50 sheets of each plant, and exploring by mule much of the difficult canyon terrain in the northern portion of the range."

He photographed as he went, and an important part of his photographic legacy includes black and white images from the mountains and deserts of southern California, the White Mountains, and the Sierra Nevada, taken in the 1920's and 1930's.

In 1934, while Victor was moving towards completing a PhD in Botany under Dr. Willis Linn Jepson, he was offered a chance to work with William C. Mathews, who rented space in the Life Sciences Building for his scientific photographic laboratory. He accepted the position, in part because his Los Angeles relatives needed financial help. His unusual background of academic and technical experience and training, together with his dedication to scientific precision and his feeling for aesthetic qualities made his services widely appreciated.

Mr. Mathews retired in 1944 and Victor took over as head of the photographic laboratory. His photographs, many of them involving microscopic work, were used by scientists from all over the U.C. campus, and his images became an important part of numerous scientific publications until his retirement in 1963. Throughout the years when he ran the scientific photo lab Victor frequently invented and made specialized equipment for his work, and he brought a creative and meticulous energy to all of his efforts. After 1963, Alfred Blaker, Victor's assistant for many years, became head of the laboratory.

In 1939 Victor married Elizabeth Nevin, and on December 12, 1944 their only child, Sylvia Duran was born. They bought a vacant lot high in the Berkeley hills, at 2610 Marin Avenue, and Victor designed and built a house there for his new family. With the exception of some assistance in pouring the concrete foundation and with the brick chimney, Victor did all of the work himself over a number of years. The house included a well-equipped workshop, and many of Sylvia's favorite memories were of her father busy on one of his projects there. The whole family took camping trips every summer, mostly to the Sierra Nevada. Often they would car-camp, and Victor would go off on long hikes, sometime with Sylvia on his shoulders.

Victor walked to work on the U.C. Campus each day from their house in the hills, regardless of the weather. During the 1950's and 1960's he became an avid long-distance runner. He competed regularly in the Cross City Race, later to become the San Francisco Marathon, and in the Dipsea Race in Marin County. He apparently won one local marathon, although I have not been able to find out which one. In any case, his times were sometimes good enough to gather comment. For example, the Mill Valley Record of Sept. 20, 1961 said, "Sixty-four year-old Victor Duran, running his umptieth race over the winding trail, showed many younger legs how it is done, finishing with a strong 38th with a time of 72:53 without his 15-minute handicap." Victor counted numerous other runners among his friends, among them Jack Kirk whom he had met in his wanderings in Yosemite; Jack became a legend, still running the Dipsea when he was 100 years old. In one Dipsea race Victor broke his ankle on a steep section of trail but limped across the finish line anyway.

After his retirement Victor continued to study, collect and photograph a variety of organisms, especially fungi and myxomycetes, and he continued to design and build new equipment for close-up photographic work. When his daughter Sylvia began to photograph lichens in 1973, Victor invented and built a set of brackets to hold electronic flashes on either side of a camera for her to use. These brackets became an essential piece of equipment that allowed her and her husband Stephen Sharnoff to carry out the photographic fieldwork for the book, Lichens of North America.

Although his family had been orthodox, Victor was not religious; his idea of a proper life combined scholarly studies with an active exploration of nature. He read constantly, but always in science or practical matters; he was uncomfortable with fiction because he thought it was "untrue". He was not a dour man, and although he had a strong sense of propriety he had a good sense of humor. He built toys for Sylvia when she was a child, including a doll house that was a scale model of the house they lived in, and in later years when she and Stephen had two children of their own, built more toys for them and spent many hours playing on the floor with them.

As a young man he had struggled through the Great Depression and was always careful about money: he never bought anything he could make, nor went to a repairman for anything he could fix. He seldom went to a mechanic but repaired his own cars, and he even resoled his own tennis shoes. Once on a camping trip in the 1950's on the east side of the Sierra Nevada, the transmission in their 1938 Plymouth broke down. Instead of calling a tow truck, Victor, who was slight of build, pulled the transmission out of the car himself, put it in his pack, and hiked from South Lake down to Bishop (about 18 miles away and four thousand feet lower) to find a repair shop. Fortunately the mechanic, after fixing the transmission, drove him and the heavy piece of machinery back up to their camp.

This excerpt from his field notes indicates a good example of Victor's resourcefulness:

June 1, 1928. Friday.

Whitehorse, Yukon.

I limped into Whitehorse this morning and saw the police and customs officials. I was not allowed to bring in my revolver, but under a new regulation, of which I was the first to take advantage here, I was allowed to bring in my camera, .22 rifle, and field glasses, provided I bring them out within six months. The only duty I had to pay was 85 cents on cartridges for the .22.

I then went to see about getting a boat. I learned that Barrett had left the day before in a boat he bought for $40. The boat builder had no more for sale; he had lumber and orders for several more. One fellow had one for sale for $50. As I did not intend paying any such price for a boat, I purchased lumber to build one, and when the day was up I was ready to start. I looked at and measured several so as to determine how to make mine. Jack Sewell, who runs a general store, got a cabin for me. It was just a little place but had a stove, chair, stool, table, and bed. I cleaned it up and was quite comfortable. He charged me nothing for it. There are several nice stores here, and I believe one's needs in hardware, groceries, clothes, sporting goods, etc. could be very satisfactorily met.

That summer, he journeyed down the Yukon River in the boat he built for less than $50, but he really preferred the Sierra Nevada to Alaska--I think the ferocity of the biting insects had a lot to do with it.

When Victor retired, a number of faculty expressed appreciations of him and his work. Among these notes, gathered from a handwritten list, are the following comments:

Yarwood, Plant Pathology: "His outstanding photographs will live on as a major record of the research accomplishments of many of the biologists of this campus...the quality of his pictures is the highest I know of...a major contribution to biological research on the Berkeley campus."

Papenfuss, Botany: "...your kindly help and skill in getting the best possible photographs of specimens has contributed immensely to the quality of scientific articles which have emanated from this university. Your work has been admired and praised not only in this country but throughout the world."

Snyder, Plant Pathology: "...never known anyone in the photographic business who has so consistently produced such excellent peer in microphotography...patience care, accuracy, have been an inspiration to the scientists he worked for..."

Robert Emerson, Biochemistry: "Over the years...always been a real pleasure to work with you...special knowledge of photography, both artistic and scientific sides...have done so much for students and staff alike; deeply grateful for high standards of quality..."

Bob Stebbins, Zoology: ...willingness to go out of your way to help me with photographs which were of a special nature relating to my interest in conservation..."

Bern, Cancer Research Genetics: "...creative touch, superb technical and aesthetic judgment...interest in the research projects and the people asking his help with them..."

Harris, Zoology: "Your desire to achieve a fine scientific result came first, ahead of all other considerations..."

Evans, Institute of Experimental Biology: "..precision and beauty of photographs you made of the histology of tissues and organs have seldom, if ever, been accorded such illustrations."

Foster, Botany: "the old adage about one picture being worth a thousand words...fits so perfectly to the excellent photos and photomicrographs which your skill and dedication have produced for scholars and scientists here at Berkeley...will never cease to be grateful for your patience, good humor, and high standards."

According to the dedication in the White Mountains Flora, "At least three insects and two plants have been named in honor of Mr. Duran, including Heuchera duranii Bacigalupi and Streptanthus cordatus Nutt. var. duranii Jepson." There is also Lupinus duranii Eastw., the Mono Lake lupine, which I assume is named for Victor.

Victor's life and work, especially his devotion to using photography to further appreciation of the natural world, inspired his daughter Sylvia to undertake the involvement with lichens which led to the book, Lichens of North America. That work was dedicated, in part, to him.

In the later years of his life, from about 1980 onward, Victor became afflicted with Alzheimer's disease. Because he was still physically strong he would go out for walks and sometimes get lost. Sylvia, who was increasingly responsible for his care, used wildlife tracking technology to find him; by sewing a radio transmitter into his cap she was able to follow his movements.

Eventually Victor had to be moved to a nursing home, and he died in the spring of 1989.

Victor left behind a collection of photographs, in the form of negatives and black and white prints, of his early travels. Some of these are on glass plates. There are also photos of his camping trips in later life and his family. He also left behind a set of field notes from his years as a collector for the U.C. Herbarium.