John E. Dowling received his AB and PhD from Harvard University. He taught in the Biology Department at Harvard from 1961 to 1964, first as an Instructor, then as assistant professor. In 1964 he moved to Johns Hopkins University, where he held an appointment as associate professor of Ophthalmology and Biophysics.
He returned to Harvard as professor of Biology in 1971, was the Maria Moors Cabot Professor of Natural Sciences from 1971-2001, Harvard College professor from 1999-2004 and is presently the Gordon and Llura Gund Professor of Neurosciences.
Dowling was chairman of the Biology Department at Harvard from 1975 to 1978 and served as associate dean of the faculty of Arts and Sciences from 1980 to 1984. He was Master of Leverett House at Harvard from 1981-1998 and currently serves as president of the Corporation of The Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole.
He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a member of the American Philosophical Society.
Awards that Dowling received include the Friedenwald Medal from the Association of Research in Ophthalmology and Vision in 1970, the Annual Award of the New England Ophthalmological Society in 1979, the Retinal Research Foundation Award for Retinal Research in 1981, an Alcon Vision Research Recognition Award in 1986, a National Eye Institute's MERIT award in 1987, the Von Sallman Prize in 1992, The Helen Keller Prize for Vision Research in 2000 and the Llura Ligget Gund Award for Lifetime Achievement and Recognition of Contribution to the Foundation Fighting Blindness in 2001. He was granted an honorary MD degree by the University of Lund (Sweden) in 1982 and an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Dalhousie University (Canada) in 2012.
Dowling's research interests have focused on the vertebrate retina as a model piece of the brain. He and his collaborators have long been interested in the functional organization of the retina, studying its synaptic organization, the electrical responses of the retinal neurons, and the mechanisms underlying neurotransmission and neuromodulation in the retina.
Dowling became interested in zebrafish as a system in which one could explore the development and genetics of the vertebrate retina about 20 years ago. Part of his research team has focused on retinal development in zebrafish and the role of retinoic acid in early eye and photoreceptor development. A second group has developed behavioral tests to isolate mutations, both recessive and dominant, specific to the visual system.