William Jacobs, biology professor who survived being lost in Yosemite, dies at 99
He was Boston-born and Harvard-educated but on that February day in 1946 he was a long way from Cambridge — lost during a skiing trip in California’s woods. Yosemite National Park was a different kind of classroom, the winter weather an unforgiving teacher.
“No knife, no matches,” Bill Jacobs thought before falling asleep his first night alone as he assessed his meager supplies. Reprimanding himself for miscues, he added: “No brains, was the inevitable conclusion.”
Rescued after surviving 11 days without food or a fire during snowstorms and plunging temperatures, he was almost nonchalant speaking to the Globe by phone from a hospital bed. “I came so close to dying that there didn’t seem to be anything to worry about,” he said. “I sang a bunch of songs, thought about how hungry and thirsty I was. Then I gave myself up for dead.”
Given a second chance at life, Dr. Jacobs went on to become a Princeton University biology professor and lived to nearly 100. He was 99 when he died in his sleep March 2 in his Princeton, N.J., home, just shy of his 70th wedding anniversary.
In a series of first-person accounts that the Globe published as a booklet back then, he wrote what is now a long-forgotten story about the perils of taking a wrong turn on a ski trail. Subsisting on lichens scraped from pine branches, he emerged with one of the most remarkable winter survival tales from any national park.
“Lying on my back, slowly and passively starving to death,” he wrote, “was scarcely the way to convince either nature or myself that I deserved to live.”
And so he carefully plotted his survival, even while those searching for him were losing hope. A week after he disappeared, Yosemite’s superintendent announced that park rangers and searchers had little chance of finding Dr. Jacobs alive.
“ ‘The struggle for existence results in the survival of the fittest.’ That was Darwin’s story and I stuck with it,” he wrote in the Globe, several days after he was rescued. “I had come perilously close to letting nature select me out instead of selecting me in, I told myself.”
During his first lost hours, he spotted a sign for a “Red Cross cache” and found the few supplies that helped save him: “a toboggan mattress, an Army blanket, a large first aid kit, a heating pad, some wooden splints.”
Using those items and some low-hanging pine branches, he fashioned a small shelter against the falling snow, a place to sleep for what would turn out to be the next week and a half.
His star-crossed trip had begun routinely enough. Dr. Jacobs was doing graduate research at the California Institute of Technology in botany — a background that served him well, once he was lost.
“ ‘Lichens are occasionally used as famine food in the north,’ I could hear my biology professor saying now,” he thought to himself, alone in the woods. “I knocked down a dead branch and sampled the yellow-green lichen. ‘Not too bad,’ I told myself, without much conviction.”
He had driven with friends from Pasadena to a ski area at Badger Pass. After a breakfast of griddlecakes and bacon on Saturday, Feb. 2, they headed for the chairlift.
The slopes were icy and Dr. Jacobs fell a few times on his first run. His friends went ahead and had already gone back up the lift by the time he reached the lodge. When he reached the top, a lift attendant didn’t know which trail his friends had taken. Dr. Jacobs picked a trail and soon became “a little disoriented from my numerous turns.”
He yelled for help when he first realized he might be lost. “Only the rising howl of the wind in the treetops answered me,” he wrote. “I felt a faint chill of foreboding.”
The second of three siblings, William Paul Jacobs was born in Boston on May 25, 1919, and grew up in West Roxbury. His father was Major General Vincent H. Jacobs, who served in World War I and World War II, and had been a brigadier general while with the Massachusetts National Guard. His mother, Elizabeth Genevieve Kennedy Jacobs, was a homemaker.
At Boston English High School, Dr. Jacobs played glockenspiel in the band and earned money entertaining at cocktail parties. He also played xylophone, keeping one in his home for years.
Graduating from Harvard College in 1942 with a bachelor’s degree in biology, he served stateside in the Army during World War II, assigned to the medical corps because of his science background. In need of new glasses, he was held back at the last moment when an artillery unit to which he initially was assigned was sent overseas. Most of that unit was killed in the battle of Kasserine Pass in Tunisia.
After the war, Dr. Jacobs conducted research at Cal Tech — his home when he took the skiing trip to Yosemite — and finished his doctorate at Harvard. He was chosen to be part of Harvard’s Society of Fellows alongside contemporaries such as historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and future presidential national security adviser McGeorge Bundy.
Dr. Jacobs met Jane Shaw on a blind date and they married in 1949.
While lost in Yosemite a few years earlier, he had avoided thinking about food. Instead, he recited poetry and tried “to remember the themes of as many symphonies, quartets, and quintets as I could, the arias from operas, the melodies of lieder.”
Years later, as a Princeton professor, he walked home for lunch every day and “would listen to classical music from noon until 1,” said his son, Mark of Phoenix. “He said to me that he swore to himself that he’d do that if he survived, and he kept to it.”
Mark and his sister, Anne of West Windsor, N.J., wrote that when their father was lost in Yosemite, among his regrets “was that he had not danced enough.”
Dr. Jacobs “compensated during his remaining 73 years, throwing and attending countless dancing parties, joining Jane on the dance floor at the trigger of the first notes of a good song,” they added.
A service has been held for Dr. Jacobs, who in addition to his wife and two children leaves his sister, Mary Jacobs Brown of Worcester; five grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.
During his years teaching at Princeton, Dr. Jacobs published many academic papers, including 1955’s “What Makes Leaves Fall?” In 1998, the American Society of Plant Biologists honored his work with the Charles Reid Barnes Life Membership Award. He retired from Princeton at age 70, in 1989.
His disappearance in Yosemite was front-page news in the Globe, as was his rescue and the accounts he wrote. Surprised by the attention, Dr. Jacobs apologized for having created work for rescuers and worries for his family.
He had survived by deciding he had little chance of finding his way out of the woods through deep snow, hobbled by feet heavily blistered from his first day’s efforts. Instead, he stayed near a stream that provided water. It was there that two rangers found him on Feb. 13, 1946.
“Here was the rest of my life handed to me on a silver platter,” Dr. Jacobs wrote in the Globe about the rescue. “I had plenty of time to separate the wheat from the chaff; plenty of time to decide where I was going and how. Let’s see how well I kept my course.”