Chamberlain, Charles Joseph

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Chamberlain, Charles Joseph

(b. Sullivan, Ohio, 23 February 1863; d. Chicago, Illinois, 5 January 1943),


A contributor in the field of morphology of the angiosperms and gymnosperms and to methods for the study of plant cells, Chamberlain was drawn early in his career to the study of the cycads and centered his researches for over forty years on these plants, whose origin had been little known. Resembling the palms but related to the ferns and still retaining the fern leaf, they were numerous and widely distributed during the Triassic and Jurassic periods. Today they are native only to certain tropical and subtropical regions and are represented by the Cycadaceae, a family of the class Gymnospermae. Because they have survived virtually unchanged, they have often been called “living fossils.”

The son of Esdell W. and Mary Spencer Chamberlain, he attended Oberlin College, where he studied botany under the geologist A. A. Wright, who also taught zoology. Chamberlain was perhaps influenced then toward his later interest in the application of histological methods to botanical study and in the origin of plants whose line was to be traced from remote ancestors in the Paleozoic era. He was graduated from Oberlin in 1888 and that year was married to Martha E. Life; they had one daughter. He then taught in the public schools of Ohio and Minnesota and for several years was principal of the high school in Crookston, Minnesota. During the summers, meanwhile, he continued his botanical studies toward the master’s degree, which he received from Oberlin in 1894. In 1893 Chamberlin matriculated at the University of Chicago, where in 1897 he received the first doctorate conferred in the department of botany. At the University of Chicago he was in charge of the botanical laboratories from their establishment and was a member of the faculty for over forty-five years. In 1901–1902 he engaged in research at Bonn, in the laboratory of the renowned botanist Eduard Strasburger. At Chicago, Chamberlain became professor of morphology and cytology in 1915 and professor emeritus in 1929. In 1931 his wife died, and in 1938 he married Martha Stanley Lathrop.

Chamberlain contributed to botanical publications and in 1902 became American editor for cytology of the Botanisches Zentralblatt. Over the years he received numerous honors, including the honorary Sc.D. from Oberlin in 1923. A member of international botanical societies, he was vice-president and chairman of the botanical section of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1923 and president of the Botanical Society of America in 1931–1932.

In tracing the evolution of the cycads, Chamberlain studied the evidence of paleobotany and examined the structural relationships of past and living representatives, following the stages of their life histories. He saw the once-flourishing cycads as now restricted and struggling for survival. In order to see them as they grew in their natural surroundings, Chamberlain made a number of expeditions. He visited Mexico in 1904, 1906, 1908, and 1910; and in 1911–1912 he traveled around the world, to Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, observing all of the oriental cycads during this journey. Later he made two such trips to Cuba. The Living Cycad is an account of these field expeditions to study the cycads. While collecting plant material and photographs and meeting other botanists interested in these plants, Chamberlain recorded a range of observations on the zoological features and the customs of countries he visited. He sent back to Chicago plant material for microscopic as well as macroscopic study in the laboratory, and specimens for the botanical garden.

Enriched by his contributions over the years, the collection of living cycads in the botanical garden at the University of Chicago became foremost in the world; and at Chamberlain’s death it contained all of the nine genera which now survive and half of the known species. His lifework was to have led to a monograph, then near completion, on the morphology and phylogeny of the cycads.


I. Original Works. In collaboration with John Merle Coulter. Chamberlain wrote Morphology of Spermatophytes (New York, 1901); Morphology of Angiosperms (New York, 1903); and Morphology of Gymnosperms (Chicago, 1910, 1917). Interested in the microscopic examination of plant tissue as an aid to botanical study, he published Methods in Plant Histology (Chicago, 1901, 1905, 1915, 1924, 1932). The Living Cycad (Chicago, 1919) recounts his botanical expeditions. Chamberlain also wrote Elements of Plant Science (New York, 1930) and Gymnosperms: Structure and Evolution (Chicago, 1935; repr. New York, 1957). Among his articles are “Spermatogenesis in Dioon edule,” in Botanical Gazette, 47 (1909), 215–236; “The Living Cycads and the Phylogeny of Seed Plants,” in American Journal of Botany, 7 (1920), 146–153; and “Hybrids in Cycads,” in Botanical Gazette, 81 (1926), 401–418.

II. Secondary Literature. See J. T. Bucholz, “Charles Joseph Chamberlain,” in Botanical Gazette, 104 (1943), 369–370; and Arthur W. Haupt, “Charles Joseph Chamberlain,” in Chronica botanica VII, 8 (1943), 438–440.

Gloria Robinson