Minot, Charles Sedgwick

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(b. Roxbury, Massachusetts, 23 December 1852; d. Milton, Massachusetts, 19 November 1914)

anatomy, embryology,

Minot was the second of three sons of William Minot and Katharine Sedgwick. A paternal ancestor was Jonathan Edwards; and on both sides, there were several distinguished lawyers and public figures. Growing up on his wealthy father’s country estate, he early became interested in natural history and at the age of seventeen published articles on insect and bird life. He graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1872 and then entered the graduate school of Harvard College, where he worked under Henry P. Bowditch. spending a summer with Louis Agassiz at Penikese, Massachusetts. In 1873 he went to Leipzig to work with Karl Ludwig and Rudolf Leuckart. He was also at Paris for a few months with Louis-Antoine Ranvier and at Würzburg.

After his return to America in 1876, Minot completed in 1878 the requirements for his Harvard doctorate in science. After two years of private biological research, in 1880 he joined the Harvard faculty, at first in the dental school and, after 1883, in the department of histology and embryology of the school of medicine. There he began what became an outstanding collection of vertebrate embryos. To facilitate the work of sectioning them, he invented in 1886 the automatic rotary microtome, ever since in worldwide use. In 1892 Minot published his chief work, Human Embryology, a masterly summation of an unwieldy literature and a highly original presentation of the major problems of that branch of science. Among his many research accomplishments were an account of the microscopic structure of the human placenta and a description of the blood channels in the liver since known by his term “sinusoids.”

Minot’s wide-ranging intellect led him into very broad fields of thought. For a few years he was active in the American Society for Psychical Research, from which he withdrew when finally convinced of its unscientific outlook. Deep reflection about the nature of life, its origin, course, and termination guided his protracted studies of the growth of animals and the progressive changes in cell structure from birth to death.

Minot exerted wide influence on American biology of his time in his books, numerous papers in scientific journals, and lectures, all presented with clarity and stylistic elegance. Reserved in professional manner and sometimes sharply critical of other workers in matters of scientific judgment, he was a genial participant in the professional societies of natural history, anatomy, and physiology. He was one of a small group of biologists and medical scientists who broadened the study and teaching of anatomy in the United States to include not only gross morphology but also embryology, histology, and physical anthropology, and transformed the American Association of Anatomists from a small society with limited interests to its present breadth and strength.

Minot was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1897 and served as president of the American Society of Naturalists, the American Association of Anatomists, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. His eminence in human and comparative embryology was recognized by honorary degrees from Yale, Toronto, St. Andrews, and Oxford universities and by a visiting professorship at Berlin.


I. Original Works. Minot’s primary publications are Human Embryology (New York, 1892); “A Bibliography of Vertebrate Embryology,” in Memoirs of the Boston Society of Natural History, 4, no, 11 (1893), 487–614; Laboratory Textbook of Embryology (Philadelphia, 1903); and The Problem of Life, Growth, and Death (New York, 1908), in addition to about 180 scientific papers and lectures.

II. Secondary Literature. On Minot and his work, see (listed chronologically) Henry H. Donaldson, “Charles Sedgwick Minot,” in Science, n.s. 40 (1914), 926–927, a character study; Charles W. Eliot, “Charles Sedgwick Minot,” ibid., 41 (1915), 701–704: Frederic T. Lewis, “Charles Sedgwick Minot,” in Anatomical Record, 10 (1915–1916), 133–164, with portrait and bibliography; Edward S. Morse, “Charles Sedgwick Minot, 1852–1914,” in Biographical Memoirs. National Academy of Sciences, 14 (1920), 263–285, with portrait and complete bibliography.

George W. Corner

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