Carl H. Eigenmann

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Eigenmann, Carl H.

(b. Flehingen, Germany, 9 March 1863; d. Chula Vista, California, 24 April 1927)


The son of Philip and Margaretha Lieb Eigenmann, Carl intended to study law when he entered Indiana University in 1879, two years after his arrival in the United States with an uncle. A course in biology under David Starr Jordan turned him to an extremely productive career in ichthyology. After receiving his bachelor’s degree (1886), he studied the South American fish collections at Harvard University for one year and then became curator at the Natural History Society in San Diego, the home of his wife, Rosa (also an ichthyologist). At Jordan’s departure in 1891, Eigenmann replaced him as professor of zoology at Indiana University, having received his Ph.D. there in 1889. In 1892 he was made director of the Biological Survey of Indiana; in 1908 he became the first dean of the graduate school at Indiana; and from 1909 to 1918 he was honorary curator of fishes at the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh.

Eigenmann was a member of the National Academy of Sciences, of Sigma Xi and Phi Beta Kappa, a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and an honorary member of the California Academy of Sciences and of the Sociedad de Ciencias Naturales of Bogotá, Colombia.

Although he conducted other researches, Eigenmann repeatedly turned to painstaking analyses of the classification, distribution, and evolution of the freshwater fishes of South America, based on studies of many museum collections and the results of his own expeditions. From comparisons of the African and South American Cichlidae and Characidae, he concluded that a pre-Tertiary land connection between the two continents must have existed. In a number of monographs he presented the classification of families of South American fishes, climaxed by the exhaustive five-part “American Characidae” (1917–1925). His brief stay on the West Coast resulted in valuable papers on the taxonomy, variation, and habits of the fishes of San Diego (1892), and at Indiana he published considerably on the fish there. Curiosity about blindness of cave animals led Eigenmann to detailed study of specimens from Indiana, Missouri, Texas, Kentucky, and Cuba. He concluded that the degenerative characteristics of subdued coloration and of blindness become inherited when they have adaptive environmental value.

A significant participant in the “golden age of descriptive ichthyology in the United States,” Eigenmann left a legacy of meticulous classification and many grateful students who credited him especially with teaching them self-reliance.


I. Original Works. Besides many monographs on fish families and single papers, Eigenmann’s major publication was “The American Characidae,” in vol. 43 of the Memoirs of the Museum of Comparative Zoology of Harvard College: pt. 1 (1917), 1–102; pt. 2 (1918), 103–208; pt. 3 (1921), 209–310; pt. 4 (1927), 311–428; and pt. 5 (1929), 429–558, written with G. S. Myers. The geographic studies of South American fishes appeared in “The Fresh-Water Fishes of Patagonia and an Examination of the Archiplata Archhelenis Theory,” in Reports of the Princeton University Expedition to Patagonia, 1896 to 1899, Zoology, III (Princeton, 1909), 225–374. The studies of cave fauna are summarized in Cave Vertebrates of North America: A Study in Degenerative Evolution, Publications of the Carnegie Institution, no. 104 (Washington, D.C., 1909), pp. 1–341.

II. Secondary Literature. Little is known of Eigenmann’s early life, but his professional career is well summarized in Leonard Stejneger, “Carl H. Eigenmann,” in Biographical Memoirs. National Academy of Sciences, 18 (1937), 305–336, where it is commented that the “middle initial did not stand for a name.” A full bibliography accompanies the Stejneger memoir. For a lively account of the “Golden age of descriptive ichthyology in the United States After 1850,” in Copeia, no. 1 (1964), pp. 42–60.

Elizabeth Noble Shor

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Carl H. Eigenmann: (ī´gənmən), 1863–1927, American ichthyologist, b. Germany, grad. Indiana Univ., 1886. From 1891 he taught at Indiana Univ., founding and directing the biological station at Winona Lake. With his wife, Rosa Smith Eigenmann (1859–1947), he studied and published much on the fishes of South America. His greatest work was "The American Characinidae" (1917–29 in five parts in the Memoirs of the Museum of Comparative Zoology). He also studied degenerate evolution (in which characteristics that seem to be biologically regressive are inherited when they better enable the organism to survive its environment) in cave-dwelling vertebrates and wrote Cave Vertebrates of North America (1909).