Calkins, Gary Nathan

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Calkins, Gary Nathan

(b. Valparaiso, Indiana, 18 January 1869; d. Scarsdale, New York, 4 January, 1943),


Calkins came of old New England stock and was the son of John Wesley Calkins and Emma Frisbie Smith. In 1894 he married Anne Marshall Smith, and in 1909 Helen Richards Colton. Calkins took his B.S. in biology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1890. He was appointed microscopist and assistant biologist at the Massachusetts Board of Health, lecturing in biology at M. I. T. at the same time. In 1893 he began graduate work at Columbia University, from which he received the Ph.D. in 1897. While a student there, he started teaching in 1894, as tutor in biology. He rose rapidly through the ranks to a professorship of zoology in 1904. Two years later his title was changed to professor of protozoology. He remained at Columbia for the rest of his life, retiring as professor emeritus in 1939.

Beginning in 1893 Calkins worked for many years at the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole and was a pillar of that institution. In 1896–1897 he had charge of two expeditions to the Northwest and Alaska. During his early years at Columbia he was also interested in statistics and held office in the American Statistical Association. He had a lifelong interest in cancer research and served as consulting biologist to the New York State Department of Health Cancer Laboratory from 1902 to 1908.

Calkins’s interest in the entire field of biology and experimental medicine resulted in a general textbook of biology (1914), but he was best known as a student of protozoan life. He was the author of The Protozoa (1901), one of the two earliest modern works on the subject and the first in English. Over the years he produced several extremely influential textbooks of protozoology, useful not only as teaching aids but as important synthetic statements in the science. His views reached maturity in the widely cited The Biology of the Protozoa (1926). Many honors came to him during his lifetime, and he died at the age of seventy-three in Scarsdale, New York, where he had made his home for many years.

Although fully aware of the pathogenic importance of one-celled organisms—indeed, it was the focus of some of his earliest work—Calkins was concerned during most of his career with the general biological and purely scientific aspects of unicellular animals. Each of Calkins’s general treatises included important revisions of and improvements in the taxonomy of the protozoa. He suggested, for example, redefining the protozoans to exclude chlorophyll-bearing flagellates, and his basic concern was to maintain a clearly zoological portion of the protista kingdom.

Calkins regarded vital processes as more individual and inexplicable than did many of his colleagues; and although he was therefore close to the neovitalism that flourished early in the twentieth century, he explicitly stated his expectation that physical and chemical explanations for life processes would be found. He himself, from the time of his Ph.D. dissertation, did the largest part of his research on the reproduction and regeneration of protozoa. For decades he was engaged in a major controversy over whether or not ciliates can continue indefinitely to maintain themselves by division without conjugation. Calkins consistently provided evidence and argument to suggest that the generational rhythms of the organisms will prove fatal without conjugation and that conjugation stimulates physiological processes.

Calkins distinguished between ontogenetic and phylogenetic regeneration, and he believed that the former will decrease in vitality without conjugation. Although the question of indefinite maintenance of these organisms without conjugation had not been completely settled even after many years, during his lifetime Calkins’s views were considered by his colleagues to represent a one-sided approach to the problems of both vital processes and the processes of reproduction and regeneration. Calkins was a major figure and an influential and prolific writer in his own era. At his death the electron microscope and other innovations were already transforming: the entire science of the protista that he had pioneered.


In addition to standard directories, information is available in a biographical article in the National Cyclopaedia of American Biography, XXXIII (1947), 50–51. A complete bibliography has not been collected, and one must rely upon standard sources such as Biological Abstracts. H. S. Jennings, Genetics of the Protozoa (The Hague, 1929), provides an extensive review of some of Calkins’s most important work.

J. C. Burnham