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Child, Charles Manning

Child, Charles Manning

(b. Ypsilanti, Michigan, 2 February 1869; d. Palo Alto, California, 19 December 1954),


Child was the only surviving child of Charles Chauncey Child and Mary Elizabeth Manning Child, both of substantial and prosperous old New England families. Keenly interested in natural history in all its aspects, he grew up in the family home at Higganum, Connecticut, and attended nearby Wesleyan University as a commuter student. There he finally chose the field of biology rather than chemistry and received the Ph.D. in 1890 and the M.S. in biology in 1892. He was an outstanding student and held a graduate assistantship from 1890 to 1892. After the death of his parents, Child went to Leipzig, where he worked for a time in the psychology laboratory of Whilhelm Wundt before taking his Ph.D. in 1894, in zoology, with Rudolf Leuckart.

In 1895, after some research at the famous Naples Zollogical Station, Child joined the faculty of the University of Chicago where he rose through the ranks to a professorship in 1916. He carried on research at Woods Hole, at Naples in 1902–1903, and at marine stations of the Pacific Coast. He married Lydia Van Meter in 1899. At Chicago, Child was made department head and was retained after reaching retirment age in 1934. In 1928 he founded the journal Physiological Zoological he retired to California in 1937 but continued research and writing until his death. A prodigious worker, travler, and hiker, he had close friends but was generally reserved in his personal relationships.

Child’s work in zoology involved two themes: sensitivity and reactivity of animal organisms, and the problems of reproduction and development. His doctoral dissertation was a morphological study of insect sense organs, and by the late 1890’s he was working on reproduction and embryology in simple organisms. His main contribution, the gradient theory, combined the two interests. He became intrigued by the classic controversy of preformation versus epigenesis, and he turned his attention to the development of the form of various organisms. In his search for the mechanism by which the structure of the organism develops from the germinal material, Child came to emphasize physiological factors, positing a dynamic process by which given elements in the cells respond to the environment in such a way as to produce molar development. Child believed the communication between protoplasmic units to be primarily excitatory and only secondarily chemical.

The gradient theory took its name from Child’s observation that regeneration of the organism occurs in graded physiological stages along the axis (originally observed in planaria), with each gradient physiological process seemingly connected to those immediately adjacent to it. The controversial concept was important in the science of morphogenesis after about 1911. Many of Child’s colleagues felt that he generalized too much from experiments with simple animals, but Child had nevertheless identified a basic problem in organic development. He spent most of the rest of his life exploring his idea in numerous publications.

Child gained substantial reputation and recognition for his work and received many honors in his lifetime. Although he lectured ably to undergraduates, his forte was research and he trained a number of graduate students in his laboratory. Not the least of his contributions was as head of the department of zoology at Chicago. Although Child’s dominating major interest was narrow, his colleagues were nevertheless a vigorous and diverse group.


Biographical information and a full bibliography of Child’s writings may be found in Libbie H. Hyman, “Charles Manning Child, 1869–1954,” in Biographical Memoirs of the National Academy of Sciences, 30 (1957),73–103.

J. C. Burnham

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