Davenport, Charles Benedict, 1866-1944

Alternative names
Birth 1866-06-01
Death 1944-02-18

Biographical notes:

Charles B. Davenport was a biologist and director of the Department of Genetics at the Carnegie Institution of Washington (1904-1934).

From the description of Papers, 1874-1944. (American Philosophical Society Library). WorldCat record id: 122488735

Charles B. Davenport's influence and efforts at Cold Spring Harbor, New York, began in 1898 when he became the director of the summer school of the Biological Laboratory, a position he held until 1923. The lab was administered by the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences, but their support was uncertain by 1902, at which time Davenport began a two-year correspondence with the directors of the newly-created Carnegie Institution of Washington. In 1904, the Carnegie Institution established the Station for Experimental Evolution, voting Davenport director on January 19. In October 1910, the Eugenics Record Office was established, existing as a separate laboratory at Cold Spring Harbor. Mrs. E. H. Harriman was responsible for its establishment, eventually endowing it with $300,000 in 1918. The Eugenics Record Office and the Station for Experimental Evolution were combined under the administrative title of the Department of Genetics of the Carnegie Institution of Washington in 1921.

From the description of Cold Spring Harbor Papers, ca. 1903-1940. (American Philosophical Society Library). WorldCat record id: 122440174

Born in Brooklyn Heights, N.Y., one year after the end of the Civil War, Charles Davenport was raised under the stern and often distant eye of his father, Amzi Benedict Davenport, an elder in the Congregational Church, a former abolitionist and temperance man. Strict, even Puritanical, Amzi Davenport raised his son for a practical career, educating Charles at home until he was 13, and using him as his office boy. In contrast, Charles' mother, Jane Joralemon Dimon, was warm and affectionate, and encouraged Charles' youthful interest in the decidedly unpractical study of nature.

After graduating from Brookyln Polytechnic Institute, Charles accepted an eminently practical job as surveyor for nine months,largely to please his father. His interests, however, lay with the natural sciences, and determined to make a career for himself in science, he entered Harvard to study zoology. A superior and disciplined student, he spent his summers at the Marine Biological Station at Woods Hole and at Agassiz's Laboratory at Newport, R.I., continuing directly from study for his bachelor's degree onto his doctorate.

After receiving his PhD in 1892, Davenport was selected by the Department of Zoology to remain as instructor. Although his tenure was relatively brief, it was highly productive. Among his students were number of promising young scientists including E. B. Castle and Herbert Spencer Jennings, and gained an intimate familiarity with a range of quantitative and statistical techniques that provided a basis for his later work in biomety. Perhaps more importantly, he gained his first taste of scientific fame when he transformed the notes for the first course he taught at Harvard into a textbook, Experimental Morphology (N.Y., 1897, 1899) that was both well received and widely read. In 1904, he published an equally successful manual on quantitative methods in laboratory sciences, Statistical Methods with Special Reference to Biological Variation . Yet the most important thing to emerge from his Harvard days, professionally and personally, was his marriage in 1894 to Gertrude Crotty, a graduate student from Kansas who became his collaborator on a number of projects as his career took off.

In 1898, Davenport was appointed Director of the summer programs at Cold Spring Harbor, and in the following year he accepted a position on the faculty of the University of Chicago. Quickly rising to Assistant Professor (1901), Davenport hatched a number of schemes in Chicago with the intent to organize a laboratory devoted to the integration of physics, chemistry, and physiology into experimental evolutionary biology. His timing could not have been better: with the rediscovery of Mendel's theory of inheritance in 1900, he was poised to take advantage of a reinvigorated discipline, and although he was at first unconvinced by Mendelian theory, he recognized its value for coordinating research for the new laboratory. From early on, he was drawn particularly to applying genetic theory to the "betterment" of human populations. Seeing himself as building upon the work of Francis Galton, the man who had coined the word eugenics in 1883, Davenport explicitly sought to unveil the scientific basis for the inheritance of physical, mental, and moral characteristics in human populations with the goal of eventually breeding better humans.

Davenport's break was not long in coming. On a visit to London in 1902, he had met Galton and the pioneering biometrician, Karl Pearson, both of whom helped refine his plans for the Cold Spring Harbor laboratory, and who helped quicken his faith in Mendelian genetics. More importantly, in that same year, the establishment of the Carnegie Institution of Washington provided Davenport with a likely source for funding the state of the art genetics laboratory for which he longed. When his detailed plans for the lab were approved by Carnegie in 1904, he resigned from his position at Chicago and took up the reins at Cold Spring Harbor full time.

In 1910, Davenport approached Mrs. E. H. Harriman for funds to establish yet another link in the Cold Spring empire, the Eugenics Record Office. With the publication of his Heredity in Relation to Eugenics (New York, 1911) in the following year, Davenport's position at the apex of American eugenics was assured. Although his quantitative skills began increasingly to lag behind those of his peers, and although many of his publications were considered slapdash, he sat in the center of the most powerful research facility in the nation, and he was successful at nurturing younger scientists, incluidng G. H. Shull, Albert F. Blakeslee, and Milislav Demerec, among others. At the same time, his second in command in the Eugenics Record Office, H. H. Laughlin, became a spokesman for the programmatic side of the eugenics movement, lobbying for eugenic legislation to restrict immigration and sterilize "defectives," educating the public on eugenic health, and disseminating eugenic ideas widely. The Record Office formally came under the aegis of the Carnegie Institution of Washington in 1918.

Davenport's 1929 work, Race Crossing in Jamaica (1929), coauthored with Morris Steggerda, represented the apogee of his influence. Based on anthropometric measures of body dimensions, skin color, and hair type, the study was vehemently attacked by geneticists for Davenport's simplistic attempts to link mental capacity and race and for his failure to account for environmental and cultural influences. In many ways, his career after 1929 is one of steady decline. Davenport remained at the helm in Cold Spring Harbor until his retirement in 1942, and died in 1944.

From the guide to the Charles Benedict Davenport Papers, 1874-1946, (American Philosophical Society)

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)


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  • Eugenics
  • Beans--Research
  • Biology
  • Developmental biology
  • Blood groups
  • Horticulture
  • Datura
  • Race, race relations, racism
  • Genetics, Animal
  • Embryology
  • Blacks
  • Afro--Americans
  • Black race
  • Colchicine--Research
  • Genetics--Research
  • Human genetics
  • Eugenics--history
  • Genetics
  • Heredity
  • Biology, genetics, eugenics
  • Eugenics Record Office
  • Geneticists--United States
  • American Eugenics Society
  • Human growth
  • Evolution


  • Biologists


  • United States (as recorded)
  • United States (as recorded)
  • Germany (as recorded)