Science Serving Maryland's Coasts

Burreson Receives Mathias Medal

October 20, 2011

Eugene M. Burreson, a Virginia biologist who pioneered studies of parasites that decimated oysters in the Chesapeake Bay, is the latest recipient of a rare honor, the Mathias Medal. He received the award at a ceremony in Richmond on October 17, 2011, attended by family members and coworkers.

The medal, sponsored by Maryland Sea Grant, Virginia Sea Grant, and Chesapeake Research Consortium, has been presented every five years or so to a retired scientist who has made significant contributions to science and policy in the Chesapeake Bay. The medal is named for former U.S. Sen. Charles “Mac” Mathias of Maryland, who launched the first federal-state partnership in the 1970s to restore the Bay.

Burreson retired in 2010 from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science as a professor after 34 years there. During his career, he played an instrumental role in the continuing effort to breed disease-resistant strains of the native oyster, Crassostrea virginica. VIMS now provides them to shellfish growers throughout the mid-Atlantic.

In 2000, he and a colleague published a landmark work of scientific sleuthing that pinpointed for the first time the source of the protozoan parasite that causes MSX, a disease that helped reduce oyster stocks in the Chesapeake to one percent of historic levels. Burreson used genetic fingerprinting to show that the DNA of the MSX microbe found here matched that in parasites found in Japanese, or Pacific, oysters ( C. gigas), which apparently were imported to East Coast waters starting in the 1930s.

Burreson also developed molecular tests that are used worldwide to detect shellfish pathogens and trained scientists to use them.

“Gene's contributions clearly rank with the very best in shellfish biology over the past century,” said Roger L. Mann, director of research and advisory service at VIMS.

In his comments at the award ceremony, Burreson made a point of thanking the laboratory workers and colleagues with whom he has worked, “without whom I would not be standing up here tonight.”

The ceremony included a videotaped tribute from U.S. Rep. Rob Wittman, a Virginia Republican who is a member of the Congressional Chesapeake Bay Watershed Task Force. He praised Burreson’s contributions to science and Virginia’s seafood industry.

Since the Mathias Medal was established in 1990, only five have been awarded, the most recent to Grace Brush, in 2004.