Wyman, Jeffries

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(b. Chelmsford, Massachusetts, 11 August 1814; d. Bethlehem, New Hampshire, 4 September 1874)

anatomy, physiology.

Wyman was almost a model of the nineteenth centuiry scientist who had no life independent of his calling. His father, Rufus Wyman, was a physician who named his son after John Jeffries of Boston, his medical teacher; Wyman’s mother was Ann Morrill. An elder brother, Morrill Wyman, was known as the leading physician in nineteenthcentuiry Cambridge. In 1818 Dr. Rufus Wyman became physician for the McLean Asylum for the Insane, then in Charlestown. Massachusetts, where Jeffries had his early schooling. After preparation at an academy in Chelmsford and at Phillips Academy at Andover, Wyman entered Harvard in 1829, graduating in 1833. Not a distinguished scholar in general, he continued while an under graduate a very early interest in natural history and in sketching, major tools for a future anatomist. In his senior year Wyman contracted pneumonia, which continued as what Oliver Wendell Holmes called “the pulmonary affection that kept him an invalid, and ended by causing his death.” This condition, from whcih he suffered for over forty years, set important limits and opened important opportunities for the entire span of his adult carrer, especially its requirement that he spend each winter in the South.

After graduating from Harvard College, Wyman apprenticed himself to a John C. Dalton in Chelmsford and attended the Harvard Medical School in Boston. On receiving the M.D. in 1837, he failed to find a lucrative post in a country town and was thus forced to open a Boston office and to accept the poorly paid post of demonstrator of anatomy to John C. Warren, the Hersey professor at Harvard Medical School.

Wyman’s turn from medicine to science was largely financed by the few wealthy men in Boston who figured in most scientific careers of the community at that time. John Amory Lowell made Wyman curator of the Lowell Institute, and in the winter of 1840-1841 he delivered a course of lectures on comparative anatomy and physiology. With the proceeds Wyman made a somewhat truncated tour of Europe, the standard preparation for an American career in science. He spent the summer of 1841 in Paris, attending lectures in human anatomy, comparative anatomy, physiology, and zoology. In London he worked on the Hunterian collections at the Royal College of Surgeons and became acquainted with Richard Owen before being called back by the death of his father.

On returning to Boston, Wyman took his place in the scientific community as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and curator of reptiles and fishes at the Boston Society of Natural History. For a living and as an excuse to go south, he was professor of anatomy and physiology at Hampden–Sydney Medical College in Richmond, Virginia, from 1843 to 1848. During that period he published some of the most significant papers of his career.

In 1847 Wyman’s friends at Harvard made an arrangement that sufficeed to give him a secure institutional base for the rest of his life and gave the university a markedly increased capability in zoology and anatomy. Wyman took the Hersey profesorship, which hitherto had been at the medical school, to Cambridge, while Oliver Wendell Holmes occupied a new chair, the Parkman professorship, in Boston. Thus anatomy and physiology became subjects for undergraduates, not just for medical students, and Wyman had scope to work on species other than Homo sapiens. Since Asa Gray, the Fisher professor of natural history, wished to concentrate on botany, he expected Wyman to hold recitations in elementary zoology, especially when Gray was on leave–an arrangement that significantly advanced the differentiation of botany and zoology at Harvard. With the appointment, at essentially the same time, of Louis Agassiz to the Lawrence Scientific School, Wyman was able to confine himself largely to anatomy and physiology, and to undertake the development of a museum of anatomical specimens that he continued to the end of his life.

Specialization was still in transition in the midnineteenth century, however, and Wyman was associated with his brother Morrill Wyman in a private medical schook at Cambridge from 1857 to 1866. From 1856 to the end of his lfie he was the beneficiary of gifts from two wealthy Bostonians that made possible his winter research in warm climates. He often went to Europe or Florida. He traveled to Surinam in 1856; and despite the fever he contracted there, was ready by 1858; and despite the fever he contracted there, was ready by 1858 to go on the La Plata expedition of J. M. Forbes, which crossed the Andes and returned from Chile by way of Peru and the Isthmus of Panama. This type of invalid’s rest played a part in Wyman’s becoming professor of American archaeology and ethnology in 1866, and effectively the first director of the museum endowed by George Peabody. Thus in the last years of his life he built an archaelogical museum alongside his anatomical museum in Boylston Hall at Harvard.

Wyman gained national recognition as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and an original member of the National Academy of Sciences, but he did not serve as the one and soon resigned from the other. He was married twice, in 1850 and 1861. His first wife died in 1855, leaving two daughters; the second died in 1864, leaving a son. The combination of delicate health and steady exertion remained constant until Wyman’s last days in September 1874. He was on an anual visit to the White Mountains, to escape the autumnal catarrh, when he died suddenly of a hemorrhage from the lungs.

Of Wyman’s 175 papers, mostly on anatomy, the ones that attracted most notice were a series on the gorilla. With the memoir (written with Thomas S. Savage) “Notice of the Characters, Habits, and Osteology of Troglodytes gorilla, a New Species of Ourang From the Gaboon River” (Boston Journal of Naturla History,5 [1845-1847], 417–442), Wyman established himself as the peer of Richard Owen in elaborating the anatomical features of the higher primates. In 1859 he worked on a large collection of gorilla skins and skeletons sent him by the explorer Paul Belloni du Chaillu.

Despite his pose of being above the fray in both scientific politics and intellectual controversy, Wyman followed with informed care the great issues of his day that swirled about the work of Charles Darwin and Louis Pasteur. In his study of the gorilla, he generalized only to the extent of saying that the

…difference between the cranium, the pelvis, and the conformation of the upper extremities in the negro and Caucasian sinks into comparative insignificance when compared with the vast difference that exists between the conformation of the same parts in the negro and the orang. Yet it cannot be denied, however wide the separation, that the negro and orang do affordx the points where man and brute, when the totality of their organization is considered, most nearly approach each other [p. 441]

From 1860 to 1866 Wyman corresponded with Darwin, providing a number of examples of possible natural selection. One was the action of light favoring black pigs over white ones after they had eaten a Florida plant called paint–root (Lachnan thes tinctoria) Another concerned the perfection of cells formed by bees, on which Wyman made and published careful measurements. These cases appear in Origin of Species. Other examples provided by Wyman include blind fishes of Mammoth Cave, Nata cattle of south America. malformed codfish, and rattlesnakes. Wyman never expressed himself publicly on the Origin of Species; but clearly he seriously considered the problems set by Darwin, and the testimony of his friends indicated that he was privately pro–Darwin and not a vitalist (and equally privately a theist).

In 1862 Wyman began a series of experiments on spontaneous generation, paralleling those conducted by Pasteur and Pouchet. He reported the presence of infusoria even in flasks that had been boiled, under carefully controlled conditions, for four hours. When the flasks were boiled beyond five hours, no infusoria appeared. Yet Wyman did not press to any conclusion, wither for or against spontaneous generation, being content to let his experiments stand as examples of logically conceived and elegantly executed laboratory exercises.

Wyman’s influence lived on in a number of students. B. G. Wilder carried on his theories of symmetry and homology in limbs. S. Weir Mitchell paid tribute to his inspiration. Perhaps the most effective projector of Wyman’s influence, even into the twentieth century, was the young man who as a student had come to respect him over Agassiz and who succeeded him in his course in anatomy and physiology at the time of his death–William James.


A collection of MSS long held by the Wyman family is at the Countway Library, Harvard Medical School.

Biographical notices include Asa Gray, “Jeffries Wyman Memorial Meeting…October 7. 1874,” in Proceeding of the Boston Society of Natural History17 (1875), 96–124; Oliver Wendell Holmes, “Memoir of Professor Jeffries Wyman,” in Procceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society,14 (Apr. 1875), 4–24; and A. S. Packard, “Memoir of Jeffries Wyman, 1814-1874,” in Biographical Memoirs. National Academy of Sciences,2 (1886), 75–126, which includes a list of Wyman’s works.

Also see R. N. Doesch, “Early America Experiments on ’Spontaneous Generation’ by Jeffries Wyman (1814-1874),” in Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences,17 (1962), 326–332; A. H. Dupree, ed., “some Letters From Charles Darwin to Jeffries Wyman,” in Isis,42 (1951), 104–110; and “Jeffries Wyman’s Views on Evolution,” ibid.,44 (1953), 243–246; and G. E.Gifford, ed., “Twelve Letters From Jeffries Wyman, M.D.: Hampden–Sydney Medical Colege, Richmond, Virginia, 1843-1848,” in Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences,20 (1965), 309–333; and “An American in Paris, 1841-1842: Four Letters From Jeffries Wyman,” ibid.,22 (1967). 274–285.

A. Hunter Dupree