Harvey, Ethel Browne (1885–1965)

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Harvey, Ethel Browne (1885–1965)

American cell biologist and embryologist recognized for her work on cell division in the eggs of sea urchins. Name variations: Ethel Browne. Born Ethel Browne in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1885; died in Falmouth, Massachusetts, in 1965; the youngest of two sons and three daughters of Bennet Bernard Browne (a physician) and Jennie (Nicholson) Browne; attended Bryn Mawr Preparatory School; Woman's College of Baltimore (later renamed Goucher College), A.B.; Columbia University, A.M., 1907, Ph.D., 1913; married Edmund Newton Harvey (a biology professor), in 1916; children: Edmund Newton Harvey, Jr. (b.1916); Richard Bennet Harvey (b. 1922).

Destined to become a pioneering scientist recognized for her work on cell division in the eggs of sea urchins, Ethel Browne Harvey was born in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1885, and raised in a progressive family that championed professional careers for women. She was the daughter of Jennie Nicholson Browne and Bennet Browne, a successful Baltimore obstetrician-gynecologist and a professor of gynecology at the Woman's Medical College of Baltimore. Both of her sisters, Mary Nicholson Browne and Jennie Browne , became physicians. Ethel was educated at Bryn Mawr School and the Woman's College of Baltimore and, in 1906, entered Columbia University for doctoral study in cell biology, supporting herself by teaching high school science and math and by working as a lab assistant. In 1909, while still a predoctoral fellow, she published a paper entitled "The Production of New Hydranths in Hydra by the Insertion of Small Grafts," a culmination of her experiments in inducing the formation of new hydra (a freshwater polyp) in the body column of another hydra through a process of grafting. The hydra experiment, though groundbreaking, went unnoticed, and Ethel received her Ph.D. in 1913, writing her thesis on male germ cells of the aquatic carnivorous insect genus Notonecta.

In 1916, Ethel married Edmund Newton Harvey, a Princeton biology professor, and started a family. Giving birth to a son in 1916 and another in 1922, she placed them in the care of nurses and governesses so she could continue her work. She conducted research in the United States and abroad, working in laboratories as far away as Japan. Aside from a three-year post at New York University as an instructor in biology (1928–31), she spent most of her career at Princeton, where she received neither title nor compensation, and was forced to share laboratory space. During summers, she worked out of an office shared with her husband at the Woods Hole Marine Biology Laboratory on Cape Cod.

During her career, Harvey published over 100 papers, the best-known of which is "Parthenogenetic Merogony of Cleavage without Nuclei in Arbacia punctulata," a complex treatise published in Biological Bulletin (1936), documenting her experiments with cell division in sea urchin eggs. Although it was believed at the time that the cell nucleus was generally the part of a cell that "directed" cell division and embryo development, Harvey discovered that the nuclei could be removed from the cells, yet continue to divide. Further, when placed in a solution of concentrated sea water, the nuclei-free cells would live up to a month. Based on these finding, Harvey further hypothesized that cell division might be controlled by parts of the cell other than the nucleus. Her discoveries gained public recognition in late 1937, with articles on her findings appearing in the popular journals Time, Life, and Newsweek.

Ethel Harvey worked well into her 70s, and in her later years earned many honors for her scientific contributions. She was made a trustee of the Woods Hole Laboratory and was elected a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the New York Academy of Science. Ethel Harvey died in 1965, after suffering an acute attack of appendicitis.


Bailey, Brooke. The Remarkable Lives of 100 Women Healers & Scientists. Holbrook, MA: Bob Adams, 1994.

Sicherman, Barbara, and Carol Hurd Green, ed. Notable American Women: The Modern Period. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1980.


Ethel Harvey's papers are at the Maine Biological Laboratory Library in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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Harvey, Ethel Browne (1885–1965)

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