History of the Biosystematists


     The following introduction to the history of the Biosystematists is based largely on information contained in the scholarly works of Vassiliki B. Smocovitis, Professor of History at the University of Florida in Gainesville, who has written extensively on the history and sociology of evolutionary biology and American botany in the twentieth century. For more information on this topic, consult the list of relevant publications that are listed below. William Z. Lidicker, Jr., of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, University of California, Berkeley, and long-time member of the Biosystematists, has written an interesting account of the group's founding and early history, intellectual format, and membership over the years, along the way documenting its transition to the organization it is today at the beginning of the twenty-first century. For his essay, click here. Jerry Powell, another long-time member, wrote down some interesting historical notes along with his personal observations, available here.

     The Biosystematists had their origin in a group of botanists initially drawn to California and its flora after the first World War and interested in a more evolutionary approach to botany. While most of the botanical (primarily taxonomy) activity in the United States at the beginning of the twentieth century centered on the Gray Herbarium at Harvard University, the balance of activity and influence began to shift westward in the early 1920s, to the University of Chicago and the West Coast. Unlike botany at Harvard, which dwelt almost exclusively on systematics (legacy of Asa Gray), botany at Chicago went in a different direction, emphasizing the newer areas of ecology and morphology, reflecting the influence and leadership of midwestern botanists such as John M. Coulter and Charles Bessey. A third center of botany arose in the San Francisco Bay area in the 1920s and 1930s, with a focus on efforts to understand mechanisms of plant evolution using a combination of approaches that involved ecology, genetics and systematics (Smocovitis, 1994).

     The most important of these early groups of plant geneticists and evolutionists who were beginning to make their way to California by the early 1920s were those located at the University of California in Berkeley and the Carnegie Institution of Washington, based at Stanford University in Palo Alto. Harvey M. Hall, Ernest B. Babcock and later G. Ledyard Stebbins, Jr. at UC Berkeley and the Carnegie team of Jens Clausen, William Hiesey, and David Keck, were instrumental in bringing together a group of diverse and interactive botanists at institutions in the Bay area devoted to understanding evolution in plants using a combination of experimental approaches. Due largely to their efforts and the close proximity of other institutions such as the California Academy of Sciences, there developed considerable interest in what were then regarded as newer and bolder, more cross-disciplinary, approaches to understanding the "new" systematics which was gaining momentum at that time (Hagen, 1984; Smocovitis, 1994, 1997). Encouraged by this growing interest in evolution and systematics, ties among local biologists were further strengthened with the creation of an informal society in the Bay area in the mid-1930s with the name of the "Biosystematists". The Biosystematists began as a very informal organization, with the group meeting on a monthly basis at one of the Bay Area institutions, usually in the evening for dinner and a discussion of current research or issues led by one of its members or invited visitors, a tradition that continues to this day (see "History of Meetings, 1993-2001"). For many years, only members and invited visitors were allowed to attend (Smocovitis, 1994). Although the exact date of its founding is still debated and membership records for the early years were not kept, the first "official" meeting of the group is thought to have been held in October 1936 (see Lidicker's essay, "The First Decade" for discussion of this question) at the Carnegie Institution of Washington at Stanford, with David Keck leading a discussion on plant biogeography and Wegener's then controversial theory of continental drift (Smocovitis, 1994, 1997). By the late 1930s like-minded zoologists in the Bay area, such as Richard Goldschmidt and I. Michael Lerner, a close friend of the eminent evolutionist Theodosius Dobzhansky who was one of the "architects" of the modern evolutionary synthesis (then at California Institute of Technology and a frequent visitor to the Bay Area), were drawn into the group.

     By the early 1940s, the Biosystematists (group photograph, May 1946) was one of two 'local' organizations in the United States that were to play a greater and greater role in focusing the evolutionary activity of geneticists, paleontologists, systematists and naturalists and in helping to organize a formal society for the study evolution at the national level (the other being centered at institutions in the New York City area; Columbia University and the American Museum of Natural History) (Smocovitis, 1996). The culmination of these efforts led to the formation of an organizing "Committee on Common Problems in Genetics, Paleontology, and Systematics" sponsored by the National Research Council, and eventually the founding of the Society for the Study of Evolution (SSE) in 1946 at meetings in St. Louis. Prominent among the active members of the former committee were a number of California botanists including Babcock, Ralph Chaney, Herbert Mason and Stebbins of UC Berkeley , as well as Edgar Anderson and Carl Epling of the University of California at Los Angeles. All were also active participants at meetings of the Biosystematists during this period.

Literature Cited