G. Evelyn Hutchinson: The "Father" of American Ecology

Hutchinson with a 3-month-old potto,
New Haven, 1971.
Photo credit: William K. Sacco

 

The year 2003 marked the centenary of the birth of G. Evelyn Hutchinson (1903–1991), a beloved professor at Yale for 43 years and one of the most influential biologists of the 20th century.

Although his primary field of research was limnology (the study of the physical, chemical, geological and biological aspects of lakes and other bodies of fresh water), he had wide interests in the humanities and sciences, and published over 300 scholarly papers and several books. Sometimes referred to as the “Merlin” of science, he magically crafted his detailed factual understanding of organisms into broad-based concepts. His famous paper “Homage to Santa Rosalia or Why are there so many animals?” is arguably the first to deal with modern concepts of biological diversity.

Above: Phylogenetic tree of Hutchinson’s intellectual descendants.
Below: Lake scene with species named for Hutchinson.
Artist: Marian A. Kohn.
From Limnology and Oceanography, 1971.

 

Hutchinson’s influence is also felt through his students, several of whom became eminent scientists themselves. Under his supervision 48 students completed their doctorates, and he solely or strongly influenced many other dissertations. On his retirement in 1971 an issue of the journal Limnology and Oceanography dedicated to him included a phylogenetic tree of his intellectual descendants and a lake scene populated by creatures named in his honor.

Hutchinson was primarily an aquatic ecologist, focusing particularly on the study of freshwater lakes and ponds. When he came to Yale in 1928 he went looking for suitable local research sites and found Linsley Pond in Branford, Connecticut. He and his students worked and collected there for the rest of his career. Yale researchers, notably Peabody Museum Curator David Skelly, still work there today.

G. Evelyn Hutchinson receiving the Verrill Medal
in 1981 from S. Dillon Ripley (on right) and
Karl Waage (on left).

 

“Nothing in her history being known to the contrary,
perhaps for the moment we may take Santa Rosalia
as the patroness of evolutionary studies, for just below [her] sanctuary
…lies a small artificial pond…[where] I got a hint of what I was looking for.”

From “Homage To Santa Rosalia Or Why Are There So Many Animals?”
Address of the President, American Society of Naturalists, delivered at
the annual meeting, Washington, D.C., December 30, 1958


So begins one of the most quoted publications in modern biology. In it Hutchinson discusses the diversity of animal life on earth in the context of food chains, predators, natural selection, species competition and ecological niche theory — principles that he is credited with developing in a modern sense. It is based on studies he made of two species of waterbug (specifically water boatmen), that he observed on Mount Pellegrino, near Palermo, Sicily. Written in Hutchinson’s delightful and unique style, it also includes wonderful descriptions of the mystery, art and religious history of the burial site of Saint Rosalia, which was near his research site.

Photograph courtesy of Manuscripts & Archives, Yale University Library.

An interesting footnote in the paper is thought to be the first published reference to one of the most often cited remarks among evolutionary biologists. Hutchinson notes that a “disproportionately large number” of animal species are beetles (Coleoptera) adding:

“There is a story, possibly apocryphal, of the distinguished British biologist, J.B.S. Haldane, who found himself in the company of a group of theologians. On being asked what one could conclude as to the nature of the Creator from a study of his creation, Haldane is said to have answered, ‘An inordinate fondness for beetles.’ ”

The publications resulting from his role as biologist for the 1932 Yale North India Expedition began with a paper in Nature on high altitude lakes, but in his career he published almost 300 scholarly papers and books, in many fields. Yet the true diversity of his interests was far greater, and included the arts, literature, drama, music, human sociology, the history of science, systematics, genetics, conservation, and more, as well as the 1979 partial autobiography, Kindly Fruits of the Earth. His studies increasingly prompted his profound concern for improving the quality of the environment. In the first of over 30 years of essays for American Scientist, in 1943, he wrote:

“The writer believes that the most practical lasting benefit science
can now offer is to teach man how to avoid destruction of his own environment,
and how, by understanding himself with true humility and pride, to find ways
to avoid injuries that at present he inflicts on himself with such devastating energy.”

Collecting insects at Cherryhinton Chalk Pits,
Cambridgeshire, England, 1920.
Yale University Archives

 

George Evelyn Hutchinson became an instructor at Yale in 1928, and retired in 1971 as Sterling Professor of Zoology. He was entirely educated at Cambridge University in his native England, but credits his father, a mineralogist, and uncle, a zoologist, for much of his early interest in natural history.

“It would be a mistake to view Evelyn Hutchinson as just a natural scientist, for his curiosity and knowledge seemed to span about every field of human inquiry.… Of Evelyn, it was possible to ask about almost everything and get a fascinating answer.…” — Thomas E. Lovejoy

G. Evelyn Hutchinson at Wicken Fen, Cambridgeshire, England, on his last outing, March 23, 1991. Wicken Fen is where Hutchinson first formulated many of his scientific ideas and interests in biology.

Special thanks to David Furth, Smithsonian Institution, for his assistance with this exhibition.

Photograph by David G. Furth. Courtesy of G. Evelyn Hutchinson Papers, Manuscripts & Archives, Yale University Library.