Grinnell, Joseph

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Grinnell, Joseph

(b. Indian agency forty miles from Fort Sill [now Oklahoma], 27 February 1877; d. Berkeley, California, 29 May 1939)


Grinnell’s Quaker father, Fordyce Grinnell, was a physician in the Indian service. He tried private practice in Tennessee but returned to the service in 1880 and went to Dakota Territory, where Joseph found welcome friends among the Indian children. Joseph’s mother, Sarah Pratt Grinnell, also a Quaker, was, like her husband, descended from early New England stock. The family moved to Pasadena, California, in 1885, to Pennsylvania in 1888, and returned to Pasadena in 1891. Joseph attended Pasadena High School and earned his B.A. in 1897 at Throop Polytechnic Institute (now California Institute of Technology), spending all his free time making a collection of local birds.

In 1896 he seized an opportunity to spend the summer in Alaska, where he collected birds avidly, and he returned there in 1898 with a group of gold-seekers for eighteen months, during which time his success with birds was much greater than was the group’s with gold. Grinnell began graduate work at Stanford University, but his studies were interrupted by typhoid fever. After his recovery (M.A., 1901) he taught at Throop Polytechnic from 1903 to 1908, first as instructor and then as professor.

A chance acquaintance with Annie M. Alexander, a generous benefactress of the new Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at the University of California, led the way for Grinnell to become director of the museum in 1908, a position he held until his death. Under his direction, the museum expanded from its original small building to become a large wing of the zoology building at Berkeley. After receiving his Ph.D. (Stanford, 1913). Grinnell also served at Berkeley, advancing from assistant to full professor of zoology.

Grinnell entered zoology at an exciting time, along with an enthusiastic circle at Stanford and vicinity which included, among others, Walter K. Fisher; Edmund Heller; Robert Evans Snodgrass; Grinnell’s professor, Charles H. Gilbert; and the university’s president, David Starr Jordan. The initial phase of exploration and classification in zoology had largely been completed and the role of the environment was coming under intense study.

Having informally agreed not to enter Stanford’s preempted field of fishes, the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology elected to collect the terrestrial vertebrates of California and adjacent regions. Grinnell worked almost entirely within that ecologically diverse state, comparing animal species that were separated by natural barriers or that varied because of diversity of altitude or climate. He led a seven-year survey of the fauna of a cross section of the Sierra Nevada and another of the Mount Lassen area. He recognized from field studies that no two species can occupy the same ecologic niche and remain separate species, a concept usually attributed to G. F. Gause from later experimental studies.

A painstaking observer, a voluminous notetaker, and a precise writer, Grinnell contributed extensively to the knowledge of distribution and ecology of Californian vertebrates. With dismay he observed the deleterious effects of the state’s growing population on the natural environment and became an active conservationist. A tree-surrounded meadow in the Northern California Coast Range Reserve, where he and his wife often camped, is dedicated to their memory.


I. Original Works. Grinnell’s bibliography, listed in the memorial by his wife cited below, contains more than 550 titles. Among his most significant regional studies are “An Account of the Mammals and Birds of the Lower Colorado Valley With Especial Reference to the Distributional Problems Presented,” in University of California Publications in Zoology, 12 (1914), 51-294; the valuable Animal Life in the Yosemite: An Account of the Mammals, Birds, Reptiles, and Amphibians in a Cross Section of the Sierra Nevada (Berkeley, 1924), written with Tracy I. Storer; and Vertebrate Animals of Point Lobos Reserve, 1934-35, Carnegie Institution Publication no. 481 (Washington, D. C., 1936).

Two definitive lists of special value are Fur-Bearing Mammals of California: Their Natural History, Systematic Status, and Relations to Man, 2 vols. (Berkeley, 1937), written with J. S. Dixon and J. M. Linsdale; and Game Birds of California (Berkeley, 1918), written with H. C. Bryant and T. I. Storer. Grinnell devoted his Sundays to compiling a bibliography on California birds, “Bibliography of California Ornithology,” in 3 pts. in Pacific Coast Avifauna, no. 5 (15 May 1909); no. 16 (15 Sept. 1924); no. 26 (8 Dec. 1939).

II. Secondary Literature. The memorial by his wife, Hilda Wood Grinnell, “Joseph Grinnell: 1877–1939” in Condor, 42 , no. 1 (1940), 3-34 is a remarkably straightforward detailed account of Grinnell’s life. His Stanford days were touched on in Walter K. Fisher, “When Joseph Grinnell and I Were Young,” ibid., pp. 35-38. His characteristics and impact on students were presented in Alden H. Miller, “Joseph Grinnell,” in Systematic Zoology, 13 , no. 4 (1964), 235-242.

Elizabeth Noble Shor