Birge, Edward Asahel

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Birge, Edward Asahel

(b. Troy, New York, 7 September 1851; d. Madison, Wisconsin, 9 June 1950)


Birge’s father, Edward White Birge, was an English born carpenter of limited means; his mother was Ann Stevens, of Troy, New York. After completing grammar school and high school in Troy, Birge attended Williams College from 1869 to 1873. There Mark Hopkins (philosophy), John Bascom (English literature), and Sanford Tenney (natural history) were his most influential teachers. Following Tenney’s advice, Birge next studied zoology under Louis Agassiz at the Museum of Comparative Zoology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, during the fall of 1873.

After Agassiz’s death in December 1873, Birge transferred to the Harvard Graduate School. In January 1876 he assumed the position of instructor in natural history and curator of cabinet at the University of Wisconsin, at the behest of John Bascom, then president of that institution. In 1878 Birge returned briefly to Harvard for his doctoral examination and to receive his doctorate. He became professor of biology at Wisconsin in 1879, and soon thereafter he married Anna Grant, a friend since childhood. Accompanied by her, he spent the year 1880–1881 at the University of Leipzig in postdoctoral study under the physiologist Ludwig and under Gaule, from whom he learned the newly devised paraffin sectioning technique, which he introduced to Wisconsin upon his return.

Birge spent the rest of his life at the University of Wisconsin, where he was professor and chairman of zoology (1879–1911), dean of the College of Letters and Science (1891–1918), acting president (1900–1903), president (1918–1925), and president emeritus (1925–1950). In addition he served the state of Wisconsin as commissioner of fisheries (1895–1915), director of the Geological and Natural History Survey (1879–1919), and member of the Conservation Commission (1908–1915). He received honorary degrees from Williams College; the universities of Pittsburgh, Wisconsin, and Missouri; and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

At Wisconsin, Birge continued his undergraduate interest in water fleas by studying plankton crustaceans in Lake Mendota in relation to depth, light, temperature, and currents. This led him to the independent discovery of the thermocline (observed only shortly before in European lakes) and to a study of dissolved oxygen at different depths and times, its depletion by respiration of organisms, and its interchange with carbon dioxide at the water surface. Birge came to regard the lake as a kind of superorganism with a physiology of its own—respiring, metabolizing, and exchanging matter and energy with its environment.

In 1900 Birge brought Chancey Juday to Wisconsin and, greatly assisted by him, in 1911 published a major monograph on the dissolved gases in lakes and their biological significance. From this time on, Birge turned his attention more toward the physical factors in lakes, especially heat distribution and light penetration, while Juday specialized in lake chemistry and biological productivity. Their collaboration continued, and most of their work was published jointly.

From a study of the Finger Lakes of New York in 1910 and comparable investigations in Wisconsin, Birge worked out the principle of the “heat budget” of lakes; he also studied the thermal exchange between lake water and air in considerable detail, including the very significant role of wind in the process. Impressed by the importance of sunlight in the heat budget and in productivity, Birge next began a detailed study of light penetration into inland lake waters. With the help of physicists, he devised an instrument, which he named the pyrlimnometer, that was in principle a delicate thermocouple capable of recording (as heat) light delivered by the sun to different lake depths. Later, equipped with filters, it was used to study separately the penetration of light of different wavelengths into the water.

Upon Birge’s retirement from the presidency of the University of Wisconsin, he and Juday established the Trout Lake Limnological Laboratory near Minocqua, in Vilas County, Wisconsin, a region of numerous lakes. Thus Birge was able to extend his studies of light penetration to many lakes with different intensities of water coloration. The results were published in a series of reports written with Juday and H. J. James between 1929 and 1933. Birge showed that the upper meter of water absorbs nearly all the infrared and a large part of the ultraviolet light. The depth of penetration of the remaining rays was shown to depend on the amount of suspended matter (e.g., algae and sediment) and dissolved stains (e.g., humic acids from bogs). The amount and kind of organic matter was presented in a comprehensive report in 1922.

Birge was the first great American limnologist. Ably assisted by Juday, he gave the initial and major impetus to the development of limnology in the United States, just as Forel, the founder of limnology, had done a generation before in Europe.


I. Original Works. Birge’s writings include “The Inland Lakes of Wisconsin. The Dissolved Gases,” in Bulletin of the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey, science ser. 7, no. 22 (1911), written with Juday; “The water Fleas (Cladocera),” in Ward and Whipple, Fresh-Water Biology (New York, 1918), pp. 676–740; and “The Inland Lakes of Wisconsin. The Plankton,” in Bulletin of the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey, science ser. 13, no. 64 (1922), written with Juday.

II. Secondary Literature. John L. Brooks et al., “Edward Asahel Birge (1851–1950),” in Archiv für Hydrobiologie, 45 (1951), 235–243, includes a nearly complete bibliography of Birge’s works: G. C. Sellery, E. A. Birge (Madison, Wis., 1956), contains an appraisal of Birge as a limnologist by C. H. Mortimer.

Lowell E. Noland