Next Score View the next score

    Henry Slayter, 81, microscope expert, outdoorsman


    As a child, Henry Slayter used his rugged and adventurous personality, independence, and self-reliance to wake early in the morning to catch fish before school and return home to cook it. As an adult, he constructed both a log cabin and bunker in Maine where he spent summers enjoying the outdoors away from modern technology.

    “He had a certain hardiness about outdoor life that was just with him all of the time,” said his wife, Barbara.

    Beginning in the mid-1960s, Mr. Slayter spent summers with his family on Bog Lake in Washington County, Maine, without a telephone, electricity, or indoor plumbing. It was his way of escaping the pressures he endured as a biophysicist and restoring a sense of balance to his life, his family said.


    Mr. Slayter, who was a biophysicist in Boston for 35 years, died June 28 at the Miriam Boyd Parlin Hospice Residence in Wayland. He had Parkinson’s disease and was 81.

    Get Today's Headlines in your inbox:
    The day's top stories delivered every morning.
    Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

    Mr. Slayter took a survivalist approach to living while he was in Maine. He taught his daughters to be self-reliant by learning to clean fish, make furniture from wood, and start fires.

    “I think any daughter could say, ‘My dad could fix anything or could explain anything,’ but I really feel like my dad could because you would pose some kind of question and he would say, ‘Well I don’t know, but let’s work this out,’” said his daughter Elspeth, of Cambridge.

    During the 1960s, Mr. Slayter began working for Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Later he became affiliated with Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital.

    He gained respect as a world-class electron microscopist, developing techniques for visualizing extremely small biological structures and molecules, said James San Antonio, a biochemist who worked with him.


    Mr. Slayter contributed to solving the structure of proteins crucial to the human body’s blood-clotting function, muscle contractions, and immune system, San Antonio said. He also used special tissue-labeling techniques to discover where molecules exist in cells and tissues.

    “He wanted to figure out how things worked and apply it to the care of human beings,” his daughter said. “He told me, ‘I like to observe nature, and I was curious about why things worked the way they did.’”

    Mr. Slayter was born in Milton and grew up in various New England towns, moving with his father, who was an engineer at Navy bases in the region. His family eventually settled in Weston, where he graduated from Weston High School in 1949. He graduated from Masschusetts Institute of Technology in 1953 with a bachelor’s degree in quantitative biology.

    Following his graduation, Mr. Slayter traveled to Germany as a medic and laboratory technician in the Army.

    He returned to the United States in 1954 and entered graduate school at MIT. He was a research fellow who worked with one of the founders of microscopy techniques and developed methods to magnify certain objects. He received his doctorate in biophysics in 1963.


    The same year, Mr. Slayter married Elizabeth (Maclean), a fellow graduate student. The couple lived in Cambridge before moving to Lincoln in 1964, where he lived for almost 50 years.

    Mr. Slayter served on several committees at First Parish in Lincoln. He also advocated for his daughter Abby, who has special needs, by funding organizations assisting individuals with physical and developmental needs.

    Mr. Slayter’s first wife predeceased him in 1987 after 24 years of marriage.

    Mr. Slayter co-authored more than 100 papers in peer-reviewed journals on his medical discoveries.

    In 1988, Mr. Slayter married Barbara (Pinney) Thomas.

    He applied his knowledge of scientific inquiry to his activities on 400 acres of forest in Maine, where he spent one month each summer with his family. A

    “He had a fair measure of determination to make things do, to make things work,” said Barbara, adding that he lived by the mantra, “Let’s see if we can do this.”

    He enjoyed fishing, boating, and hiking around the property.

    In addition to his passion for problem-solving and outdoor activities, Mr. Slayter also enjoyed listening to jazz music and eating chocolate and ice cream.

    A service will be held on Saturday at 3 p.m. in First Parish in Lincoln for Mr. Slayter, who in addition to his wife and daughters leaves two stepdaughters, Gwen Thomas of Dallas and Patricia Thomas of Rome; a stepson, Stephen Thomas of Tucson; and eight grandchildren.

    Michele Richinick can be reached at