Guyer, Michael Frederic

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Guyer, Michael Frederic

(b. Plattsburg, Missouri, 17 November 1874; d. New Braunfels, Texas, 1 April 1959)


Guyer was the son of Michael Guyer and Sarah J. Thomas. From 1890 to 1892 he attended the University of Missouri and then spent two years at the University of Chicago, where he received the B.S. degree in 1894. He was a teaching assistant in zoology at the University of Nebraska from 1895 to 1896 under Henry B. Ward. In 1897 he taught high school in Lincoln, Nebraska, and received the M.S. degree the same year. His election to Phi Beta Kappa and Phi Kappa Phi honorary societies attested to his scholastic ability. Guyer returned to the University of Chicago in 1897, holding a three-year fellowship; there he worked out his doctoral dissertation, on pigeon spermatogenesis, under Charles Otis Whitman. In 1899 he married Helen M. Stauffer; a son, Edwin Michael, was born on 25 November 1900, the year in which Guyer received his Ph.D.

Guyer became professor of zoology at the University of Cincinnati, also in 1900, and served as head of the department until 1911. At Cincinnati he continued his research on spermetogenesis of guinea fowl, chickens, and hybrids between them; wrote a text on Animal Micrology (1906); and, with W. O. Pauli, published a manual of physiology. He also advised both the Medical School (on premedical education) and the Cincinnati Zoological Garden. From 1908 to 1909 he studied at Paris and the Naples Biological Station.

In 1911 Guyer was brought to the University of Wisconsin by its president, Charles R. Van Hise, to be chairman of the department of zoology, a position he held until his retirement in 1945. At Wisconsin he taught animal biology, heredity and eugenics, and cytology. His book Being Well Born (1916) aroused widespread interest in human heredity and pointed out its significance, in certain cases, as a predisposing factor to crime, disease, and mental deficiency, as well as its possible role in the improvement of the human species. His Animal Biology (1931) quickly became a leading textbook of introductory zoology, going through four editions.

Guyer’s continuing interest in medical education led to his appointment in the early 1920’s to the National Commission on Medical Education and shortly thereafter to the Wisconsin Basic Science Board, an examining body for prospective Wisconsin physicians. In both of these bodies he exerted a strong influence, stressing the importance of basic sciences in the premedical and medical curricula.

As a cytologist he was one of the first to determine, with a margin of error of about 2 percent, the chromosome number in human spermatocytes. From 1917 to 1930 his main research effort was directed toward inducing hereditary eye defects by injecting antilens serum into pregnant rabbits as eyes were beginning to form in their unborn fetuses. This research held the intriguing possibility that the units of heredity in the germ cells might be altered by antibody action. His papers on these investigations stimulated research elsewhere, which, although it failed in the end to substantiate his main thesis, led to better knowledge about placental transmission of antibodies and other immunological problems. After 1930 he and his students turned to studies on the growth of cancer cells and their susceptibility to certain chemicals, such as palladium.

In his later years Guyer published biological reflections on his own species in Speaking of Man (1942). He retired from teaching in 1945 and subsequently spent much time in Arizona and Texas to conserve his health. During his years of teaching he supervised the doctoral research of over two dozen graduate students.


Some of Guyer’s more significant publications are Animal Micrology (Chicago, 1906; 5th ed., 1948); Being well Born (Indianapolis, 1916; 2nd ed., 1927); “Transmission of Induced Eye Defects;” in Journal of Experimental Zoology31 (1920), 171–223; “Some and Germ,” in American Naturalist, 59 (1925), 97–114; Animal Biology (New York, 1931; 4th ed., 1948); and Speaking of Man (New York, 1942).

Lowell E. Noland