Remembering Bowdoin’s Forgotten Zoologist

Charles Whitman with his research subjects — several species of doves and a flicker looking into the bowl

Although he was the founding director in 1888 of a prominent marine biology laboratory that is still going strong today, is credited with bringing rigor to the scientific process in the United States and in Japan, and is considered a major pioneer in zoology, the scientist Charles Otis Whitman (1842-1910) has been largely forgotten by his alma mater, Bowdoin College.

Susan Wegner, associate professor of art history at Bowdoin, would like to rectify this. She says there’s no reason why Whitman, who earned his undergraduate degree in 1868, should not be memorialized like Bowdoin’s other great scientific achievers, such as Parker Cleveland, Donald MacMillan, Robert Peary or even Alfred Kinsey.

“Whitman is known as a major founder of modern biological study,” Wegner said. “He’s a really important scientific pioneer, and he should be better known. Some of [Bowdoin’s] biologists are his intellectual descendants.”

Whitman grew up in the countryside of Western Maine. His mother and father, both pacifists, forbade him from entering the Union Army. After graduating from Bowdoin, Whitman studied in Germany, receiving his PhD in 1878. Later he taught in Japan, where he introduced his Japanese students to the German model of systematic scientific inquiry.

Whitman went on to establish two biology programs at Clark University and University of Chicago at the turn of the 20th century. He was also the first director of Woods Hole Marine Biological Library in Massachusetts, which quickly became renowned as a site of cutting-edge research and debate. “Since this year is the 125th anniversary of the founding of the lab, now is the perfect time to reacquaint ourselves with Whitman’s achievements,” Wegner said.

Woods Hole’s Evening Lectures
From a summary of Defining Biology: Lectures From the 1890s : “The 1890s was an exciting time in American biology, a time of great intellectual debate and turmoil. Much of this activity centered on the now-famous Evening Lectures delivered at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory on Cape Cod, where leading biologists gathered to research the leading issues of the day. There was no better way to learn about what was being discussed and debated at the cutting edge of biology than through the Evening Lectures. The lectures of outstanding scientists such as C.O. Whitman, E.B. Wilson, E.G. Conklin, J. Loeb, and T.H. Morgan redefined our thinking about biology.” Continue reading
The Woods Hole laboratory was founded in part by the Women’s Educational Association of Boston, which was in the forefront of obtaining scientific educational opportunities for women. Thus Whitman’s summer classes at the lab included women from the outset. In an 1894 picture of students at the Woods Hole lab, almost half are female. Most look as solemn as their male peers, except for one young woman who’s giving a half-smile at the camera, as if she relishes her role as part of the first cadres of women to be trained at the prestigious center.

An early biographer, Dr. Charles Davenport, wrote in 1917 that Whitman was a beloved figure at Woods Hole: “For he introduced and upheld ideals of cooperation and scientific democracy which led to its loyal and devoted support by a large body of the working biologists of the country.”

Whitman’s pedagogical approach was to “throw students into advanced research right away,” Wegner said. “He had a strong sense of collaboration.”

He demanded that his students bring structure to their scientific investigation, as he did. He was a careful observer of natural phenomena, and spent hours drawing the objects of his research, from leeches to birds, to better understand how they functioned. “He was doing what Leonardo did,” Wegner said. “He did superb drawings of complex biological structures.” Part of Whitman’s legacy is “the careful documentation of the visual record,” she added. “He used art as a scientific tool.”

Over his career, Whitman generated a trove of literature, photographs and drawings, some of which are quite beautiful. Particularly elegant are two illustrations by Japanese artists which Whitman commissioned for his publication on birds’ plumage patterns.

To help resuscitate Whitman’s reputation at Bowdoin, Wegner next year will collaborate with the George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections & Archives here to present an exhibition marking the centenary of the death of the last known passenger pigeon. This last bird, a female named Martha, was housed at the Cincinnati Zoo and had come from Whitman’s flocks, which he used to study their phylogeny and behavior.

Beyond this show, Wegner said she wished Bowdoin could also acquire some of Whitman’s artifacts, if possible. Richard Lindemann, director of the George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections & Archives at Bowdoin, mentioned that the library would be open to this. “It is something for further exploration,” he said.

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  1. Barbara Kaster says:

    Susan this is terrific! Hope the college follows through on your suggestion.
    Barbara Kaster

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