Boring, Alice Middleton (1883–1955)

views updated

Boring, Alice Middleton (1883–1955)

American cytologist, geneticist, and zoologist who bridged scientific understanding between East and West. Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1883; died in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1955; one of four children of Edwin (a pharmacist) and Elizabeth (Truman) Boring; graduated Friends' Central School, Philadelphia, 1900; Bryn Mawr College, B.A., 1904, M.A., 1905, Ph.D., 1910; fellow at University of Pennsylvania, 1905–06.

Alice Boring's unusual academic career encompassed three scientific fields and two cultures. At Bryn Mawr College, she majored in cytology (the study of the formation, structure, and function of cells) and genetics, working with noted cytology and genetics professors Nettie Stevens and Thomas Hunt Morgan. With Morgan, Boring also co-authored the first of some 36 works. Her studies included a year at the University of Pennsylvania under biologist Edwin Conklin, as well as some time at the University of Würtzburg in Germany. Boring's Ph.D. dissertation investigated the behavior of chromosomes in the formation of spermatozoa in insects.

In 1918, after teaching for eight years in the University of Maine's zoology department, Boring accepted a two-year teaching post as assistant professor of biology at China's Peking Union Medical College. She fell in love with China's culture and people. Returning to the U.S. in 1920, she taught briefly at Wellesley College, only to return to China as soon as a temporary position opened at Peking University (later called Yenching University). Although she asked for only a two-year leave of absence from Wellesley, she soon became so involved in Chinese social and political concerns, that these became the foundation of her life's work. She changed her scientific focus and began the study of China's lizards and amphibians, making contributions to literature in the field. As a teacher, she provided Chinese students with the benefit of her Western point of view. Her broader contribution was a bridge for scientific understanding between East and West.

During the 1937 Japanese invasion, life at the university became difficult. Mail delivery was curtailed and money became scarce. In 1941, the English and American faculty members of the university were put in a concentration camp in Shantung, during which time Boring's family had no contact with her. In 1943, she was repatriated. In a letter to a friend, written during the voyage back to the United States, Boring wrote that she and her colleagues had survived quite well. "We shall not look like physical wrecks when you see us in New York, even if our clothes may be rather dilapidated."

Upon her return, Boring held positions at Columbia University and Mount Holyoke. In 1946, she returned to Yenching University, which was now in the midst of new conflicts between China's Communists and Nationalists. Boring began to soften toward the Communists' approach, writing to her family in 1949 that she was "surprised to find that in spite of my opposition in the past, I now am full of hope!" Called home in 1950, due to her sister's failing health, Boring settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but took a part-time teaching position at Smith College in Northampton. She died of cerebral arteriosclerosis in 1955.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts