Jeffrey, Edward Charles

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Jeffrey, Edward Charles

(b. St. Catherines, Ontario, 21 May 1866; d. Cambridge, Massachusetts, 19 April 1952)


Jeffrey was the son of Andrew and Cecilia Mary Walkingshaw Jeffrey, both of Calvinistic borderScotch ancestry. He earned his B.A. degree at the University of Toronto in 1888, and a gold medal with honors in modern languages and English. Having audited courses in biology and finding high school teaching of languages not to his liking, he returned to the university for graduate study in biology, where such study was essentially zoological. Almost immediately he obtained a three-year appointment as fellow in biology (1889-1892). Because of his interest in plants, stemming from the floristic environs of Toronto and of eastern Quebec where his family spent summers, he directed his fellowship time to wide reading in botanical literature. He later stated to his classes that no single work had had so profound an influence on him as did Darwin’s Origin of Species.

In 1892 Jeffrey received a permanent appointments as lecturer at Toronto, with the suggestion that he build a program in botany comparable to that in zoology. During his ten years in this lectureship he decided on his future program of study—the evolutionary history and sequence of vascular plants in geological time and their interrelationships. His Darwin-motivated intent included not only the assembling of available knowledge but also the exploitation of comparative morphology and anatomy for new evolutionary evidence. He devised technical methods which enabled him to make thin microscopic sections of refractory plant materials such as wood and fossilized remains.

In addition to beginning work, on his own initiative, on a Ph.D. thesis problem, he developed some of his most important work while at Toronto. The series of original papers published between 1899 and 1905 established Jeffrey’p reputation. An example of his quickly acquired maturity in comparative or evolutionary morphology is his reclassification of vascular plants as a whole in 1899 into the Lycopsida and the Pteropsida; this change from the classical system won worldwide acceptance and, with little alteration, has withstood the test of increased knowledge of fossil as well as of living plants

Taking a leave of absence for a year, Jeffrey completed his Ph.D. in botany at Harvard in 1899. In 1901 he married Jennette Atwater Street of Toronto and a year later accepted an assistant professorship in vegetable histology at Harvard. From 1907 until his retirement in 1933 he was professor of plant morphology, and as emeritus professor he continued daily use of his laboratory until shortly before his death in 1952.

In the early years of the twentieth century, indomitable will and firm convictions were needed to face the controversies brought on by the rediscovery of Mendelism and the interpretation of genetic change in the casual interpretation of evolution. Jeffrey’s Scottish background, his absolute faith in the doctrine of evolution, his love of battle, his skill in writing, and his vigorous health enabled him to maintain the same direction and intensity of effort throughout his life.

Two facets of Jeffrey’s program deserve special comment: his cytological studies, unfinished at his death, and his studies on coal, published in final from in 1925. The former have been questioned for their putative evolutionary mechanisms and their lack of genetics checks. But in regard to the latter studies, although geologists have added to his concept of a single origin of coal, they have supported his demonstration of its vegetable origin.


A complete list of Jeffrey’s publications, with a biographical sketch and a photographic portrait, appeared in phytomorphology, 3 (1953), 127–132: other bibliographic information is in Ralph H. Wetmore,’ Edward Charles Jeffrey ’ in Microscope,8 (1953) 145–146. His115 titles include two books: The anatomy of woody plants (Chicago, 1917) an anatomical evolutionary overview of representatives from the different groups of vascular plants ndash a recognizedly important contribution; coal and civilization (New York, 1925) a semipopular treatise on the origin and nature of coal and the rationale behind the industrial uses of different grades of coal. It was accompained by a monograph, “The Origin and Organization of Coal,” in memories of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, n.s. 15 (1925), 1 ndash 52, which was acclaimed by botanists and geologists alike.

Jeffrey’ reputation was established early in his career by the series of publications (1899 ndash 1910) on comparative anatomy and phylogeny of the different groups of vascular plants. Of special note are papers 5, 9, 10, 15, 25 and 34 in the Phytomorphology bibliography mentioned above.

Jeffrey’ intended third book was never completed; the MS as he left it, entitled “Chromosomes,” is in the achieves of the Harvard University Library. He expressed uncertainty about some of its chapters on controversial materials; therefore referees decided a posthumous edition could not, in fairness to Jeffrey, be completed for publication.

Ralph H. Wetmore