Cole, Leon Jacob

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(b. Allegany, New York, 1 June 1877; d. Madison. Wisconsin, 17 February 1948)


Leon Jacob Cole, the son of Elishakelly Cole and Helen Marion Newton, was a pioneer in the development and promotion of theoretical and applied genetics and a prominent leader in biology.

Cole was raised in a city but his love for animals and plants drew him to the country, where he worked on farms in the summers during his elementary and high school years. He spent the years 1894–1895 and 1897–1898 at Michigan Agricultural College, then took his A.B. at the University of Michigan in 1901 and the Ph.D. at Harvard in 1906. He married Margaret Belcher Goodenow on 28 August 1906; they had a daughter and a son.

Cole’s abilities were recognized early in his academic career, He was appointed assistant in zoology at Michigan (1898–1902) and Austin teaching fellow at Harvard (1903–1905) and selected as a member of the Harriman expedition to Alaska (1899), on which occasion he associated with eminent ornithologists, mammalogists, and botanists. During summers he was an investigator at the Bermuda Biological Station (1903); and in other summers between 1901 and 1906, and in 1909, he worked at the Woods Hole Marine Laboratories for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries. He also was a member of the Yucatan Zoological Expedition (1904), on which occasion he assisted in identifying 128 species of birds.

In 1901 Cole wrote a paper titled “Suggestions for a Method of Studying the Migration of Birds,” in which he proposed the use of leg bands in studying migration and other behavior of birds. This appears to be the first time that this procedure had been recommended for such studies.

Cole became chief of the Division of Animal Breeding and Pathology at the Rhode Island Experiment Station in 1906 and started his lifelong research on pigeons. He also published a monograph for the U.S. Fish Commission, “The German Carp in the United States” (1905). From 1907 to 1910 he was instructor in zoology at the Sheffield Scientific School at Yale, where he continued his research on pigeons.

Cole joined the faculty of the University of Wisconsin in 1910 and remained there until his death, except during 1923–1924. when he was chief of the Division of Animal Husbandry, Bureau of Animal Industry. U.S. Department of Agriculture. He came to the university to establish and chair a department of experimental breeding (in 1918 renamed department of genetics), the first of its kind in the United States. He continued as chairman until 1939, by which time sixty-two Ph.D. and sixty-one M.S. degrees had been conferred on students majoring in genetics. By the late 1930’s most of the leading American, and many of the foreign, workers in this field had been his students or had been trained by his students.

Cole believed in the desirability of maintaining programs in fundamental and applied research within the department. In the early years he supervised students in both plant and animal genetics, and gave graduate students wide latitude of choice in their research problems. He was inherently a naturalist, but at the same time was an experimentalist with broad interests. His early love for birds continued throughout his life, and his research on pigeons and doves and their crosses was the basis for about half of his scientific papers.

The early research of Cole and his students was responsible for establishing the genetic background of many of the color phases in pigeons, including an early example of sex-linked inheritance. He produced a new variety of domesticated dove by an interspecific transfer of a gene for intensity of feather pigmentation from a cross of a wild species of dove with the ring dove, followed by backcrossing to the ring dove. The basis for morphological differentiation of New World from Old World pigeons was furnished by a study of an extensive collection of material at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.

Cole’s collection of pedigreed pigeons and doves and their crosses supplied research animals for the extensive immunogenetic studies of M. R. Irwin and his students. In 1912 Cole and his colleagues in the poultry husbandry department started what was probably the first systematic inbreeding experiment with poultry, Other genetic studies on domestic fowl and ducks were undertaken by his students.

Cole was very much aware of the importance of dealing with problems facing the livestock industry. In 1912 he began an experiment involving crosses of Angus and Jersey, and later Angus and Holstein, cattle. The primary purpose was to study the genetic basis for milk and beef production. Many of the caveats that are now taken into account in designing experiments dealing with quantitative traits had not been established by 1912. The large variability within the groups and the small numbers of individuals in the experiment allowed very few unequivocal conclusions to be drawn, but the experiment did lay the groundwork for future research.

Cole’s genetic analysis of red calves in “black” breeds, of “seedy cut” in bacon, of epithelial defects in cattle, and of defects in hair and teeth in cattle provided explanations for conditions of practical importance.

Cole was largely responsible for developing the eugenic point of view in the group promoting the birth control movement led by Margaret Sanger.

During the latter part of his life, Cole’s research with R. M. Shackelford supplied mink and fox breeders with interpretations of the genetic bases for color phases and many other important traits of these species.

Cole’s contributions to science and to society were recognized by the American Society of Animal Production as their Guest of Honor in 1939, at which time his portrait was hung in the Saddle and Sirloin Club, Chicago, In 1945 he was awarded an honorary Sc.D. by Michigan State College. His breadth of knowledge, research contributions, administrative accomplishments, and willingness to cooperate brought requests for numerous talks and articles on broadly gauged topics as well as appointment and election to high positions in many organizations.

The following quotation from one of his most distinguished former graduate students, Ivar Johansson, undoubtedly reflects the opinion of Cole held by all of his discerning siudenis: “Dr. Cole’s graduate students all carry with (hem the memory of a scientist and teacher with a clear and penetrating mind, always seeking the truth honestly and straightforwardly without preconceptions and without any poses of personal authority, always exceedingly generous and willing to give the help and advice that was needed.”

The faculty counterpart of this appraisal is found in the following statement by his longtime departmental colleague, R. A. Brink: “He was recognized by [the staff] as able, stimulating, actively unselfish and ready to renounce personal ambition for the general good, [He] had a most charitable view of human limitations, not excluding his own, and so, with his other qualities, enjoyed the friendship and confidence of many kinds of people. Thus, he was enabled to build up relationships with others in the college on a complementary basis whereby the possibilities which genetics held for agriculture could be realized in practice.”


I. Original Works. Cole’s papers after 1910 (except “The Early History of Bird Banding”) are available in bound reprint files in the department of genetics. University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Selected papers are “Suggestions for a Method of Studying the Migrations of Birds,” in Michigan Academy of Science. 3 (1902), 67–70; “The German Carp in the United States,” in Report of the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries for 1904 (1905), 523–641; “A Case of Sex-Linked Inheritance in the Domestic Pigeon,” in Science. n.s. 36 (1912). 190–192; “Studies on Inheritance in Pigeons. I. Hereditary Relations of the Principal Colors,” Rhode Island Experiment Station Bulletin no. 158 (1914); “A Defect of Hair and Teeth in Cattle—Probably Hereditary,” in Journal of Heredity, 10 (1919), 303–306;’ The Occurrence of Red Calves in Black Breeds of Cattle,’ Wisconsin Agricultural Experiment Station Bulletin no. 313 (1920), written with S. V. H. Jones; “The Early History of Bird Banding in America,” in The Wilson Bulletin, 34 (1922), 108–115; “The Inbreeding Problem in the Light of Recent Experimentation,” in Proceedings of the American Society of Animal Production for 1921 (1922), 30–32; The Wisconsin Experiment in Crossbreeding of Cattle,’ in Proceedings of the World’s Dairy Congress, II (1924), 1383–1388; “Inherited Epithelial Defects in Cattle,” Wisconsin Agricultural Experiment Station Research Bulletin no. 86 (1928), written with F. Hadley: “A Triple Allelomorph in Doves and Its Interspecific Transfer,” in Anatomical Record, 47 (1930). 389 (abstract).

See also’ “Seedy Cut” as Affecting BaconProduction,’ Wisconsin Agricultural Experiment Station Research Bulletin no. 118 (1933), written with J. S. Park and Alan Deakin; “Immunogenetic Studies of Species and Species Hybrids from the Cross of Columba livia and Streptopelia risoria” in Journal of Experimental Zoology, 73 (1936). 309–318. written with M. R. Irwin; “The Origin of the Domestic Pigeon,” in Proceedings of the 7th World’s Poultry Congress and Exposition (1939). 462–466; “A Test of Sex Control by Modification of the Acid-Alkaline Balance,” in Journal of Heredity. 31 (1940). 501–502. written with Emanuel Waletzky and R. M Shackelford; “Differentiation of Old and New World Species of the Genus Columba,” in American Naturalist, 76 (1942), 570–581 written with Russell W. Cumley: “Genic Control of Species-Specific Antigens of Serum,” in Journal of Immunology, 47 (1943), 35–51, written with Russell W. Cumley and M. R. Irwin; “The Genetic Sex of Pigeon-Ring Dove Hybrids as Determined by Their Sex Chromosomes,” in Journal of Morphology, 72 (1943), 411–439, written with T. S. Painter: “Immunogenetic Studies of Cellular Antigens: Individual Differences Between Species Hybrids,” in Genetics, 30 (1945), 439–447, written with M. R. Irwin; “Inheritance in Crosses of Jersey and Holstein-Friesian with Aberdeen-Angus Cattle.” in American Naturalist, 82 (1948). 145–170, 202–233, 265–280. written with Ivar Johansson: and “Hybrids of Pigeon by Ring Dove,” idid., 84 (1950). 275–308, wntten with W. F. Hollander.

II. Secondary Literature. Biographies of Cole are R. A. Brink, “Early History of Genetics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison” (Madison. Wis., 1974), mimeographed: W. C. Coffey. “Dr. Cole and Animal Breeding Science,” in Proceedings of the 32nd Meeting of the American Society of Animal Production (1939)454–463. with a response from Cole. 463–466; Ivar Johansson. “Leon Jacob Cole 1877–1948,” in Gentics . 46 (1961), 1–4: E, W. Lindstrom. “The Influence of Wisconsin’s Genetics Department,” in Proceedings of the 32nd Meeting of the American Society of Animal Production (1939). 451–454; R. A. MeCabe. “Wisconsin’s Forgotten Ornithologist: Leon J. Cole,” in Passenger Pigeon, 41 (1979), 129–131: and H. L. Russell, “Establishing a Department of Genetics,” in Proceedings of the 32nd Meeting of the American Society of Animal Production (1939), 448–450.

A. B. Chapman