Hyman, Libbie Henrietta (1888–1969)

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Hyman, Libbie Henrietta (1888–1969)

American zoologist who was an authority on the physiology and morphology of lower invertebrates. Born on December 6, 1888, in Des Moines, Iowa; died on August 3, 1969, in New York City; only daughter and the third of four children of Joseph Hyman (a tailor) and Sabina (Neumann) Hyman; University of Chicago, B.S., 1910, Ph.D., 1915; never married; no children.

Born in 1888 into a poor immigrant family, Libbie Hyman endured a difficult childhood dominated by her mother. A precocious student, she graduated early as valedictorian of her high school class, then took additional courses in science and German while pasting labels at a Mother's Rolled Oats factory. In 1906, aided by a scholarship, Hyman was able to enter the University of Chicago where she intended to study botany. However, after encountering anti-Semitism in that department, she switched to zoology, receiving her undergraduate degree in 1910. She did her graduate work under the direction of Charles Manning Child and, after receiving her Ph.D. in 1915, stayed on at the university as Child's research assistant and as a laboratory instructor in vertebrate anatomy and elementary zoology. In the course of the next 15 years, Hyman published a number of articles in conjunction with Child's projects, as well as her own Laboratory Manual for Elementary Zoology (1919) and Laboratory Manual for Comparative Vertebrate Anatomy (1922), both of which became widely used texts.

Libbie Hyman's family had moved to Chicago after her father's death in 1907, and she continued to live at home until her mother's death in 1930. In 1931, she left the university and, with a small income from her books, spent a year exploring scientific centers in Europe. She eventually settled into an apartment in New York and began to write a treatise on the invertebrates, doing much of her research at the library of the American Museum of Natural History. In 1937, the museum made her a research associate, an unsalaried position, but one that provided an office and laboratory space.

Hyman, who was formidable in appearance and manner, was considered something of an oddity among her colleagues. There was a much-circulated rumor about her cigar smoking, though she neither drank nor smoked. Her expertise on the taxonomy and anatomy of the unpopular and unexplored lower invertebrates gained her the respect of scientists in the United States and Europe, who often sent her specimens to identify. With the publication of her comprehensive six-volume encyclopedic survey The Invertebrates, published between 1940 and 1967, she won additional stature. Hailed as an astounding scientific achievement, the book is considered a classic and still widely used. In 1960, for her work in zoology, Hyman received the British Royal Society's Gold Medal of the Linnean Society.

Hyman's love of her subject was profound. "I don't like vertebrates," she once pronounced. "It's hard to explain but I just can't get excited about them, never could. I like invertebrates. I don't mean worms particularly, although a worm can be almost anything, including the larva of a beautiful butterfly. But I do like the soft delicate ones, the jellyfishes and corals and the beautiful microscopic organisms." Handicapped by Parkinson's disease during her later years, Hyman was unable to complete additional volumes on arthropods and high mollusks, but she continued to work at the Museum of Natural History until her death in 1969.


Macksey, Joan and Kenneth Macksey. The Book of Women's Achievements. NY: Stein and Day, 1976.

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

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts