Edmund Beecher Wilson

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Edmund Beecher Wilson


American Biologist

Though he is best known for his discovery of the XX and XY sex chromosomes, Edmund Beecher Wilson also deserves credit for helping transform biology into a true scientific discipline. In the late nineteenth century, the field was characterized primarily by passive description of natural phenomena on the one hand, and by fanciful speculation and wild theories on the other. Wilson was a leader in the generation that helped tame such speculation within the rigors of a careful, yet highly active and curious, theoretical framework.

Born on October 19, 1856, Wilson was the second of Isaac and Caroline Clark Wilson's four surviving children. His father became a circuit court judge in Chicago when Wilson was two, and the family moved. However, the boy's childless aunt and uncle, Mr. and Mrs. Charles Patten, were so fond of him that Wilson's mother left him with them. Thus Wilson had the good fortune to grow up with two homes and two sets of parents.

Wilson was educated in a one-room schoolhouse in Geneva, and due to a shortage of teachers, he taught for a year at age 16. A year later, he entered Antioch College in Ohio to study biology, but in the fall of 1874 began taking courses at the University of Chicago. His plan was to go on to Yale, which had been recommended to him by his cousin and close friend Samuel Clarke. In 1875 he enrolled at Yale, where he received his bachelor's degree three years later.

In 1881 Wilson earned his Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins University, and spent the next year traveling in Europe, followed by a year at the Zoological Station in Naples, Italy. During 1883-84, he taught at Williams College in Massachusetts. This was the result of an agreement with Clarke, whereby one would spend a year at Williams while the other worked in Naples, then they would switch.

Wilson worked for another year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he collaborated with William T. Sedgwick on a textbook entitled General Biology (1886). Between 1885 and 1891, Wilson taught at Bryn Mawr College, a women's school in Pennsylvania. There he became involved in research regarding cell differentiation, or the means by which the fertilized egg produces the wide variety of cells contained in a fully formed organism. This question remained the focal point of Wilson's work, from his time at Yale to the end of his life.

Wilson spent a year working in Munich and Naples before becoming an adjunct professor of zoology at Columbia University in 1892. Shortly thereafter, he gave a series of lectures on cell structure that became the basis for another textbook, The Cell in Development and Inheritance. As with General Biology, the book was destined to become highly influential.

Woods Hole, Massachusetts, had a marine biological laboratory where Wilson spent his summers for a half a century. The town was also home of Anne Maynard Kidder, whom he married in 1904. They later had a daughter, Nancy, who became a professional cellist. Wilson himself was an enthusiastic amateur flautist and cellist.

Soon after his marriage, in 1905, Wilson presented the most important findings of his career: the discovery, which he and Nettie Maria Stevens (1861-1912) of Bryn Mawr had made simultaneously but independently, that X and Y chromosomes in the sperm determined the gender of the offspring.

Wilson continued to study cell structure for the remainder of his career, and in 1925 wrote a third edition of The Cell in Development and Inheritance. This edition ran to over 1,200 pages and was essentially an entirely different book from the first edition, thus reflecting the transformation of biology that had taken place during his career. Wilson's health was failing by that point. When he retired from Columbia in 1928, he was 72 years old. He died on March 3, 1939, in New York.


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Edmund Beecher Wilson

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