Charles Otis Whitman

Charles Otis Whitman (1842 – 1910) was an American zoologist, who introduced modern zoological studies to Japan, and was influential to the founding of classical ethology. A dedicated educator who preferred to teach a few research students at a time, he made major contributions in the areas of evolution and embryology of worms, comparative anatomy, heredity, and animal behaviour.


Whitman was born in Woodstock, Maine. His parents were Adventist pacifists and prevented his efforts to enlist in the Union army in 1862. He worked as a part-time teacher, and converted to Unitarianism. Following graduation Whitman became principal of the Westford Academy, a small Unitarian-oriented college preparatory school outside Lowell, Massachusetts. In 1872 he moved to Boston and after becoming a member of the Boston Society of Natural History in 1874, he decided to study zoology full time. In 1875 he took a leave of absence and went to the University of Leipzig in Germany to complete a Ph.D. which he obtained in 1878.

A year later he received a postdoctoral fellowship at the Johns Hopkins University, but immediately gave it up when after recommended by noted biologist Edward Sylvester Morse, he was hired by the Japanese government to succeed Morse as professor at the Tokyo Imperial University from 1879-1881. Influenced by his training in Germany, he introduced systematic methods of biological research, including the use of the microscope.

After leaving Japan, Whitman performed research at the Naples Zoological Station (1882), became an assistant at the Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University (1883–5), then directed the Allis Lake Laboratory, in Milwaukee (1886–9), where he founded the Journal of Morphology (1887).

In 1884, Whitman married Emily Nunn. He moved to Clark University (Worcester, Massachusetts) (1889–92), then became a professor and curator of the Zoological Museum at the University of Chicago (1892–1910), while concurrently serving as founding director of the Marine Biological Laboratory, Woods Hole, Massachusetts (1888–1908) . During the 1880s, Whitman established himself as the central figure of academic biology in the United States. He systematized the procedures that European anatomists and zoologists had gradually developed ever the past two decades.

Whitman was also a talented artist. Over the course of his career, Whitman worked with more than 700 species of pigeons, studying the relationship between phenotypic variation and heredity. As part of his research, he created a series of watercolor wall charts and also photographed his avian subjects.

In December 1910, however, he caught a chill, and died a few days later.

Partial Bibliography

  • A contribution to the embryology, life-history, and classification of the Dicyemids (1882)
  • The Leeches of Japan (1886)
  • The Naturalist's Occupation (1891)
  • Evolution and epigenesis: Bonnet's theory of evolution, a system of negations (1895)
  • Animal Behavior (1899)
  • The metamerism of clepsine (1912)
  • The Behavior of Pigeons (posthumous, 1919)


  • Danchin, Etienne (2008). Behavioural Ecology: An Evolutionary Perspective on Behaviour. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0199206295.
  • Sapp, Jan (2003). Genesis:The Evolution of Biology. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195156196.
  • Dugatkin, Lee Allan (2003). The Altruism Equation: Seven Scientists Search for the Origins of Goodness. Princeton University Press. ISBN 0691125902.
  • Morse, Edward Sylvester (1912). Biographical memoir of Charles Otis Whitman, 1842-1910. National Academy of Sciences. ASIN: B00087SMU0.

External links


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