Wilson, Edwin Bidwell, 1879-1964

Alternative names
Birth 1879-04-25
Death 1964-12-28

Biographical notes:

Deceased 1964.

From the description of Oral history interview with Edwin Bidwell Wilson, 1963, June. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 81360299

Physicist (mathematical physics and aeronautics). On faculty at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1907-1917, department chair, 1917-1922; professor of vital statistics, School of Public Health, Harvard University, 1922-1945, and professor emeritus from 1945; president of Social Science Research Council, 1929-1931.

From the description of Aeronautics and aerodynamics collection, 1904-1930. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 80451960

Wilson graduated from Harvard in 1899 and taught vital statistics at Harvard.

From the description of Papers of Edwin Bidwell Wilson, 1914-196? (inclusive). (Harvard University). WorldCat record id: 76973221

Wilson (Yale, Ph.D. 1901) was the first professor and head of the Department of Vital Statistics when the Harvard School of Public Health was organized in 1922, and also taught economics at Harvard College. After retiring in 1945 he joined the Office of Naval Research. Wilson contributed to the theory and application of many subjects, such as mathematical epidemiology and analysis of dosage-response curves.

From the description of Papers of Edwin Bidwell Wilson, 1923-1945 (inclusive). (Harvard University). WorldCat record id: 420509199

Albert Francis Blakeslee, a geneticist and botanist, served as the director of Smith College Genetics Experiment Station from 1943-1954.

Albert Blakeslee's boyhood was spent in East Greenwich, Connecticut, where he early exhibited a strong liking for natural history. This leaning was not encouraged by his pragmatic father, who wanted the boy's education to plan for a financially independent career; but his mother was more sympathetic. After the two years of teaching at Montpelier Academy in Vermont, his natural inclinations were not to be denied, and he entered graduate study at Harvard with a determination to become a botanist. His Harvard professors, Farlow and Thaxter, greatly helped Blakeslee's development as a botanist. He engaged in a classification of the Mucors and discovered the positive and (sexual) zygospores and observed their sexual fusion to start the diploid phase of the Mucor life cycle. His summer in Venezuela as a plant collector for the Harvard Cryptogamic Herbarium (1903) and his two summers of teaching nature study in the Cold Spring Harbor courses broadened his knowledge of plants and generated in him a deep love of teaching. Thus, when he went to Germany for a postdoctoral fellowship in 1904, he was already becoming well known as a botanist.

At the University of Halle he worked under the distinguished mycologist Klebs for two years, with some stay during the period at the Universities of Berlin, Leipzig, and Oxford. This fellowship was supported by the Carnegie Institution of Washington. Blakeslee became fluent in the German language, as became apparent in later years when such a distinguished authority as Erwin Baur, plant geneticist, sent to Blakeslee in preference to any other English-speaking biologist a copy of his proposed publication on the dysgenic effects upon German life and culture of the post-war occupation of Germany's Rhineland by the French. Baur requested Blakeslee to be so good as to translate the communication into good English, edit it, and submit it for him to some American journal, such as Eugenical Notes, edited by Davenport. The original manuscript by Baur, the translation and very extensive editing -- really a toning down -- by Blakeslee, and the subsequent letter of withdrawal of the communication by Baur are all in the Blakeslee Papers, an invaluable addition to our knowledge of the course of German eugenics in the period between the two World Wars (see B. Glass, "A Hidden Chapter of German eugenics between the two World Wars," Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 125: 357-367, 1981). While in Germany Blakeslee spent much time in art museums and attendance at concerts, and formed cultural tastes that were a lifelong joy to him.

Upon returning from Germany, Blakeslee accepted an appointment as professor of botany at the Connecticut Agricultural College, later to become the University of Connecticut. He taught many courses, in summer as well as during the regular year, and collaborated with C.D. Jervis in two popular handbooks for the identification of trees in New England and in winter. He made crosses of tree species, and successfully produced the first interspecific hybrid pine. His broad concern with social applications of botany and with teaching are to be seen in his paper presented in an American Association for the Advancement of Science symposium in 1909 on the subject, "The Botanic Garden as a Field Museum of Agriculture." He also conducted research on the genetics of poultry, and found certain genetic traits with visible effects that were linked with high egg yield; also he uncovered a negative correlation between yellow color and the time of a year when the last egg is laid. He discovered that Rudbeckia hirta, the black-eyed Susan, is a frequently mutating species. Beginning what was to become his most famous genetical work, that with the jimson weed, Datura stramonium, he worked out the simple Mendelian inheritance of white versus purple flower color and of spiny versus smooth seed capsules. In 1914-1915, he gave, at Storrs, the first college course in genetics in the United States. Also, while on leave and at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory as a research investigator, he resumed his early work on the Mucors; and in Datura found, in 1913, his first trisomic type, the "Globe" seedpod type, which has 2N + 1 chromosomes.

In 1915 Blakeslee was invited by C. B. Davenport, Director of the Carnegie Institution of Washington Station for Experimental Evolution at Cold Spring Harbor, to fill the place just vacated by George Harrison Shull, who was transferring to Princeton University. Blakeslee accepted, although he much regretted the loss of his opportunities to teach. He remained at Cold Spring Harbor until he retired in 1941, at the age of 67. He became greatly renowned for his work on Datura stramonium, in which he eventually found a trisomic type for every one of the twelve chromosome pairs in the species, each type recognizable by a distinctive phenotype of the seed capsule. With his assistants, he raised as many as 70,000 Datura plants in each summer. In 1920, he was joined by John Belling, a gifted cytologist, as his collaborator. They developed the skilled art of making acetocarmine stains of smeared plant chromosomes, a technique that became universally adopted as an enormous time-saver and also one productive of better microscopic differentiation of the chromosomes in the set. The typical chromosome numbers for many species of flowering plants were determined by the team.

In 1924, Dorothy Bergner replaced John Belling as Blakeslee's principal coworker. With Bergner, Blakeslee discovered a thirteenth trisomic in Datura. As there are only 12 chromosome pairs, a different explanation was sought, and found. There are also secondary trisomics, in which one arm of a primary chromosome has been doubled while its other arm is missing. Such a chromosome, added to the 12 types in which an entire chromosome is extra, greatly increases the diversity of chromosomal types. In search of the origin of these secondaries, numerous translocation types were found, types in which parts of two primary chromosomes had undergone a reciprocal interchange. In the pairing of homologous chromosomes that takes place during meiosis, these aberrations give rise to rings of four associated chromosomes, two normal plus two translocation chromosomes in the ring. Non-disjunction is a frequent consequence, and additional types of trisomics result. The discovery in natural populations of so much chromosomal diversity was a stepping-stone to the new evolutionary synthesis of the 1930s. Polyploid and triploid Daturas were also found, as populations from various parts of the world were analyzed. In 1937 it was discovered that colchicine will paralyze mitotic cell division and give rise to cells in which the chromosome number has been doubled. Using this technique, Blakeslee and Bergner produced polyploids, periclinal chimeras; and a new research assistant, Sophie Satina, collaborated in working out cell lineages during plant development.

Other collaborations, going back many years, were with E.W. Sinnott on quantitative inheritance, with I.T. Buchholz on pollen tube growth, with C.S. Gager on the use of radium to produce mutations. By means of exposures to radium or X-rays, 541 different gene loci were identified by mutation, 81 of which were mapped to a specific chromosome. It was also found that there was an increase of mutations during the storage of seeds. With I. van Overbeek, Blakeslee applied the techniques of tissue culture to the study of Datura genetic types.

In 1931, Blakeslee became deeply interested in the human inheritance of taste sensitivity to a chemical substance, PTC (phenylthiocarbamide). It is intensely bitter to most persons, but tasteless to others. Blakeslee checked this capacity in identical twins and found they were always similar in their capacity to taste PTC, or inability to taste it. He gave many popular lectures and demonstrations of this novel aspect of human heredity.

Blakeslee became involved in the administration of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory as early as 1923, and moved to greater and greater responsibility as Davenport aged. Upon Davenport's retirement in 1936, Blakeslee was the natural choice to succeed him. By this time he was one of America's foremost geneticists. He had helped to reorganize the American Journal of Botany in 1935, had been elected to the National Academy of Sciences and to the American Philosophical Society, and had been honored by many foreign scientific and learned organizations.

Upon retiring at Cold Spring Harbor, Blakeslee spent two years as a research associate at Columbia University, but found in 1942 an ideal situation for his "retirement" years in an appointment as a visiting professor at Smith College. Here he started up a four-college conference (Smith College, Amherst College, Mount Holyoke College, and Massachusetts State College -- later the University of Massachusetts) on Genetics, and a second on Human Relations. He initiated an active program of genetics at Smith College. With Miss Satina, he continued research on Datura by utilizing the technique of raising plant embryos in cell culture, in order to determine at what stage of development particular abnormal types led to deviations from normality, and just what they were. He became president of the Smith College Faculty Club, and worked to improve the conditions of retired faculty members. He spent much effort on human relations of the town-gown sort. As in previous periods of his life, he attended many foreign scientific congresses, for example, all of the Botanical Congresses (until 1950), and the Indian Scientific Congress in 1947. He was a visiting lecturer at Harvard University in 1948-1949. Upon his death, he left his estate to the National Academy of Sciences as trustee to provide continued assistance in maintaining and further developing a balanced genetics research program at Smith College. His personality was marked by great versatility, good humor, and a live social conscience. He was generous in giving credit to others in joint activities, yet in general somewhat reticent. These traits are reflected in some of his correspondence.

From the guide to the Albert Francis Blakeslee papers, 1904-1954, 1904-1954, (American Philosophical Society)

Edwin Bidwell Wilson (1879-1964), A.B., 1899, Harvard University, Cambridge Massachusetts; Ph.D., 1901, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut; Honorary L.L.D., 1955, Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut, taught mathematics at Yale University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge, and was the Harvard School of Public Health's first professor and head of the Department of Vital Statistics when the school was organized in Boston, 1922. After retiring from Harvard in 1945, he joined the United States Navy’s Office of Naval Research. Among others, Wilson contributed to the theory and application of mathematical epidemiology and the analysis of dosage-response curves.

Wilson was born on 25 April 1879 in Hartford, Connecticut to Edwin Horace and Jane Amelia Wilson. His father was a teacher and superintendent of schools in Middletown, Connecticut. Wilson had four siblings, two brothers and two sisters. Wilson received an A.B. in mathematics from Harvard University in 1899, a Ph.D from Yale University in 1901, and an Honorary L.L.D. from Wesleyan University in 1955. In 1900, Wilson was appointed an Instructor at Yale. After receiving his doctorate in 1901, he took a year’s leave of absence and went to Paris to study at the École Polytechnique, the Sorbonne, and the Collège de France in 1902 and 1903. In 1906, Wilson was appointed an assistant professor at Yale, leaving in 1907 to teach at MIT as an Associate Professor of Mathematics. He remained at MIT until 1922, becoming a full professor in 1911, and chairing the Department of Physics in 1917. From 1920 to 1922, when the position of MIT’s College President was vacant after the death of President MacLaurin, Wilson served as the secretary of the administrative committee that ran MIT during the search for a new president. In 1922, when the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) was organized, he left MIT to be the first professor and head of the Department of Vital Statistics. During this time he was also a professor in the Department of Economics for Harvard University. In 1945, when he retired from his positions at Harvard, he became the Lecturer on Citizenship at the University of Glasgow, Scotland where he lectured until 1946. From 1948 until his death in 1964, he worked for the Office of Naval Research in the United States.

Throughout his career, Wilson worked on a variety of subjects including vector analysis, advanced calculus, aerodynamics, statistics, and economics. In 1901, he published his first book, a collection of Professor Josiah Willard Gibbs's lectures on vector calculus called Vector Analysis (1901). While teaching mathematics at MIT, Wilson developed his own textbook and published Advanced Calculus (1912) based on his experience teaching the subject both at Yale and MIT. Between 1902 and 1916, Wilson’s research interests focused on the field of mathematics, including vector analysis, calculus, and advanced geometry, and broadened to include aerodynamics and aeronautics. In 1915, President Woodrow Wilson appointed the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics and the first Annual Report of the Committee, printed in 1916, included a report by Wilson titled, “Theory of an Aeroplane Encountering Gusts” (1916). Wilson offered courses to graduate students at MIT in aeronautics and published his own text, Aeronautics (1920), using as a foundation his lectures on rigid and fluid dynamics as applied to flight. When Wilson moved from MIT to the new Harvard School of Public Health, he turned his attention to mathematical statistics and their use in medical questions, including epidemiological, dosage, and public health studies.

Wilson was elected to membership in the National Academy of Science in 1919 and he was the first managing editor of the Academy’s Proceedings from 1915 until 1964. He was a member of the Academy’s Committee on Government Relations and Science (1929-1938), serving as Chairman of the Physics Section (1930-1933), Vice-President (1949-1953), member of the Council (1953-1956), and member of several annual nominating committees for Academy officers. He was also a member of the American Philosophical Society, and received the John F. Lewis Prize from them in 1963 for The Last Unpublished Notes of J. Willard Gibbs. He was a Fellow of the Royal Statistical Society, a member of the Mathematical Society of Benares, and of the Social Science Research Council. He was a member and later president of the American Society for the Control of Cancer and was a director of the American Cancer Society when the group changed its name. For his work with the Office of Naval Research, he received the Superior Civilian Service Award (1960) and the Distinguished Civilian Service Award (1964).

In 1911, Wilson married Ethel Sentner of Edmonton, Canada. The couple had two daughters: Doris and Enid Wilson. Wilson died in Boston on 28 December 1964.

From the guide to the Edwin Bidwell Wilson correspondence, 1940-1945 (inclusive), 1942-1945 (bulk)., (Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine.Center for the History of Medicine.)


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