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American Medical Biographies/Wyman, Jeffries

Wyman, Jeffries (1814–1874)

This physician, who did so much to advance the knowledge of natural sciences, was the third son of Dr. Rufus and Ann Morrill Jeffries, and a brother of Morrill Wyman (q.v.). He was born at Chelmsford, Massachusetts, on August 11, 1814. As a boy he went to the local academy; in 1826 to Phillips Exeter Academy and graduated from Harvard in 1833. He was not remarkable as a student, although he showed a liking for chemistry and anatomy. Some of his class-mates remember the interest which was excited among them by a skeleton which he made of a mammoth bull-frog from Fresh Pond, probably one which is still preserved in his museum of comparative anatomy. His skill and taste in drawing, which he turned to such excellent account in his investigations and in the lecture room, as well as his habit of close observation of natural objects met with in his strolls, were manifested even in boyhood.

He began the study of medicine under John C. Dalton (q.v.) at Chelmsford and at Lowell, also studying under his father and taking the regular courses at Harvard Medical School. Elected house-student in the medical department at the Massachusetts General Hospital in his third year, the position offered him good opportunities for the study of disease. He graduated in 1837. His graduation thesis, which was not published, was entitled "The Oculo." He started practising in Boston, and at the same time was made demonstrator of anatomy in the Harvard Medical School under Dr. Warren, a position bringing but scanty returns, but his life was abstemious. He was unwilling to accept more from his father, who out of his moderate income had provided for the education of two sons, so he often went without things he really needed and to get a little ready money he joined the Boston Fire Department. Rufus Wyman (1778–1842), the father, was the first superintendent of the McLean Insane Asylum, then at Charlestown, holding the position from 1818 to 1835.

Fortunately in 1840 Jeffries was offered the curatorship of the Lowell Institute by Mr. John A. Lowell. He gave a course of twelve lectures upon comparative anatomy and physiology in the winter of 1840–41, and earned enough from this course of lectures to spend a short time in study in Europe. In Paris he studied human anatomy in the school of medicine, and comparative anatomy and natural history at the Jardin des Plantes, attending the lectures of Flourens, Magendie, and Longet on physiology, and of de Blainville, Isidore St. Hilaire, Valenciennes, Dumeril, and Milne-Edwards on zoology and comparative anatomy. He took a walking trip along the Loire and another along the Rhine, whence he went through Belgium to London. In London he made a study of the Hunterian collections at the Royal College of Surgeons, but was called home by the illness of his father, who died before he reached America. On his return to Boston he spent most of his time in scientific work, but without adequate remuneration. In 1843 he was offered a professorship of anatomy and physiology in the medical department of the Hampden-Sidney College, established at Richmond, Virginia. The work in the medical college lasted merely during the winter and spring months, and the rest of the year he spent in Boston. In 1847 he resigned this professorship to accept the Hersey professorship of anatomy in Harvard College, a chair at this time transferred from the medical school to the college at Cambridge, while a new professorship, the Parkman, was established at the medical school in Boston and conferred upon Oliver Wendell Holmes. Wyman began his work at Harvard in Holden Chapel, a small building not well fitted to the purpose. The upper floor was made into a lecture room while the lower floor contained the dissecting room and museum of comparative anatomy, which was a mere rudiment when he took charge of it, but rapidly enlarged under his activity. He gave two annual courses of lectures and lessons, each for twenty weeks. One was on embryology, the other on anatomy and physiology. In addition to teaching undergraduates he directed numerous special pupils in advanced work and was loved as a simple, unaffected, attractive, stimulating teacher.

Wyman's museum was one of the first of its kind in the country to be arranged on a plan both physiological and morphological. "No pains and labors were spared, and long and arduous journeys and voyages were made to contribute to its riches."[1] (Gray.)

Among these expeditions, the following are the more important: In the summer of 1849 he accompanied Capt. Atwood, of Provincetown, upon a fishing voyage up the coast of Labrador. In the winter of 1852 while in Florida for his health, he began a fruitful study of this district. In 1854, accompanied by his wife, he travelled extensively in Europe, and visited many of the best museums. In the spring of 1856, with his pupils Green and Bancroft as companions, he sailed to Surinam, made canoe trips far into the interior, where they got many interesting collections, but also got the fever from which Wyman suffered severely. In 1858–59 he accompanied Capt. J. M. Forbes on a voyage to the La Plata, ascended the Uraguay and the Parana, and then with George Augustus Peabody, as a companion, crossed the pampas to Mendosa, and the Cordilleras to Santiago and Valparaiso, returning home by way of the Peruvian coast and the Isthmus.

Wyman's museum was made up of specimens gathered largely by himself and at his own expense, and in the main prepared by his own hands, but Agassiz by his personal enthusiasm got many to aid him. In Dr. Wyman "we have an example of what one man may do unaided, with feeble health and feebler means, by persistent and well-directed industry, without éclat, and almost without observation. While we duly honor those who of their abundance cast their gifts into the treasury of science, let us not, now that he cannot be pained by our praise, forget to honor one who in silence and penury cast in more than they all." (Gray).

Although Wyman's salary was small, he adapted his wants to his means, yet was not one to complain when, in 1856, Dr. William J. Walker, a friend of his father's, sent him ten thousand dollars to aid in his work. In the same year Thomas Lee, another friend, supplemented the endowment of the Hersey scholarship with an equal sum, stipulating that the income should be paid to Prof. Wyman during life whether he held the chair or not. The aid given Wyman by these two gifts did much to enable him to continue scientific work in comfort. In 1866 Wyman was made one of the trustees of the Museum and held the professorship of American Archeology and Ethnology, founded by George Peabody, of Harvard University. By the other trustees he was made curator of the museum. After taking charge of the museum he devoted himself mainly to ethnology.

"With what sagacity, consummate skill, untiring diligence and success, his seven annual Reports, the last published just before he died, his elaborate memoir on shell-heaps, and especially the Archeological Museum in Boylston Hall, abundantly testify. If this museum be a worthy memorial of the founder's liberality and foresight, it is no less a monument of Wyman's rare ability and devotion." (Gray).

In 1850 Wyman married Adeline Wheelwright, who died in June, 1855, leaving two daughters and in 1861, Anna Williams Whitney, who died in 1864 shortly after the birth of a son.

Wyman suffered throughout most of his life from consumption, which grew worse as time went on, so his winters were usually spent in Florida. During the earlier years he did much to build up the museum of which he had charge. "The record shows that he has made here one hundred and five scientific communications, several of them very important papers, every one of some positive value.

He was a member of the Faculty of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, and was chosen president of the American Association for the advancement of Science for the year 1875, but did not assume the duties.

His scientific papers embrace a wide range of studies including human and comparative anatomy, physiology, microscopic anatomy, paleontology, ethnology, and studies of the habits of animals. He also wrote several capital biographical sketches of fellow scientists.

In human anatomy, his most important paper is entitled, "Observations on Crania," published in the "Proceedings of the Boston Society of Natural History," for 1868. This contains considerable valuable information. Wyman also made a careful study of the skeleton of a Hottentot; was one of the first to investigate the arrangement of spongy bone in relation to the uses to which the bone is put; compared the spicula of bone in the neck of the human femur with that in the femurs of animals which do not stand upright; gave a careful description of the brain and cranial cavity of Daniel Webster, and important evidence concerning the effect of heat on the structure of bone.

A master in the field of comparative anatomy and paleontology, he achieved some popular, as well as scientific reputation by showing the Hydrarchus Sillimani publicly exhibited as the remains of a gigantic extinct sea-serpent, to be in fact made up of fossil bones belonging to several animals and these animals mammals, not reptiles. He also showed that some, at least, of the so-called paddles exhibited with this skeleton were casts of chambered cells. Wyman made numerous valuable studies of fossil remains including those of a fossil elephant and of a megatherium and of the cranium of a mastodon. In comparative anatomy the most important publication is probably that on the nervous systems of Rana Pipiens published in the "Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge," 1852. In this he gives a full description of the peripheral nervous system of the bull-frog and of the changes undergone during metamorphosis. His theoretical summaries are particulary valuable. His paper on the embryology of the skate (Raia Batis) in the "Transactions of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences," 1864, is also important. In 1843 he published an account of the anatomy of the chimpanzee and in 1847 the first account of the osteology of the gorilla ("Memoir, Boston Society Natural History"). To him is due the name of this animal which was discovered by Dr. Thomas S. Savage. The name was adopted from a term used by Hanno, the Carthaginian, in describing the wild men found on the coast of Africa, probably one of this species of the Orang. This term was adopted at the suggestion of A. A. Gould (q.v.). Gray wrote in 1874: "Nearly all since made known of the gorilla's structure and of the affinities soundly deduced therefrom, has come from our associate's subsequent papers, founded on additional crania brought to him in 1849, by Dr. George A. Perkins, of Salem; on a nearly entire male skeleton of unusual size, received in 1852, from the Rev. William Walker, and now in Wyman's museum; and on a large collection of skins and skeletons placed at his disposal in 1859, by Du Chaillu, along with a young gorilla in spirits, which he dissected. It is in the account of this dissection that Prof. Wyman brings out the curious fact that the skull of the young gorilla and chimpanzee bears closer resemblance to the adult than to the infantile human cranium."

In the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal, for 1866, he published a valuable paper on the "Symmetry and Homology in Limbs." In this he took the standpoint that the limbs of each side are reversely symmetrical. In a paper "Notes on the Cells of the Bee," ("Proceedings of the American Academy for January," 1866), he shows clearly that the structure of the honeycomb is far from being ideally perfect. Of the development of organisms in boiled water, enclosed in hermetically sealed vessels and supplied with pure air, he reported in the American Journal of Science and Arts, for 1862, the second in the same journal for 1867; in the first paper showing infusoria could develop even after prolonged boiling of the water and when air admitted came through red-hot tubes. In the second paper he showed that when the boiling was carried up to five hours no organisms develop.

Wyman's studies of Unusual Methods of Gestation in certain Fishes (Silliman's Journal, 1859), were likewise valuable. He gave a careful account of the development of Surinam toads in the skin of the back of their mother, and showed that the developing ovum is nourished at the expense of materials derived from the parent.

His interpretations according to Wilder, were either teleological or purely morphological; that is, they either illustrated function or the relations of single parts without reference to the entire organism. "He would not allow his imagination to outstrip his observation."

Gray gives the following account of Wyman's character:

"His work as a teacher was of the same quality. He was one of the best lecturers I ever heard, although, and partly because, he was the most unpretending. You never thought of the speaker, nor of the gifts and acquisitions which such clear exposition were calling forth—only of what he was simply telling and showing you. Then to those, who like his pupils and friends, were in personal contact with him, there was the added charm of a most serene and sweet temper. He was truthful and conscientious to the very core. His perfect freedom, in lectures as well as in writing, and no less so in daily conversation, from all exaggeration, false perspective, and factitious adornment was the natural expression of his innate modesty and refined taste, and also of his reverence for the exact truth."

Of Wyman's mode of work in the laboratory, O. W. Holmes gives the following description:

"In his laboratory he commonly made use, as Wollaston did, of the simplest appliances. Give him a scalpel, a pair of forceps, a window to work at, and anything that ever had life in it to work on, and he would have a preparation for his shelves in the course of a few hours or days, as the case might be, that would illustrate something or other which an anatomist or a physiologist would find it a profit and pleasure to study. Under a balanced bell-glass he kept a costly and complicated microscope, but he preferred working with an honest, old-fashioned, steady-going instrument of the respectable, upright Oberhaueser pattern. His outfit for happy employment was as simple as John the Baptist's for prophecy."

To Holmes we are likewise indebted for the following personal description of Wyman:

"Jeffries Wyman looked his character so well that he might have been known for what he was in a crowd of men of letters and science. Of moderate stature, of slight frame, evidently attenuated by long invalidism, with a well-shaped head, a forehead high rather than broad, his face thin, his features bold, his expression mild, tranquil, intelligent, firm as of one self-poised; not asserting, his scholarly look emphasized by the gold-bowed spectacles his nearsightedness forced him commonly to wear; the picture of himself he has left indelibly impressed on the memory of his friends and pupils is one which it will always be a happiness to recall."

He died at Cambridge, Massachusetts, on September 4, 1874, of pulmonary tuberculosis.

A nearly complete bibliography of Wyman's works is given in the Biographical Memoirs of the National Academy of Sciences, 1886, vol. ii, p. 77–126. It is reprinted in Animal Mechanics, 1902.
Jeffries Wyman. Address of Prof. Asa Gray at a memorial meeting of the Boston Society of Natural History, held October 7, 1874.
Prof. Jeffries Wyman. A memorial outline, by Oliver Wendell Holmes. Atlantic Monthly, July, December, 1874, vol. xxxiv.
Jeffries Wyman. By Burt G. Wilder. Old and New, Nov., 1874.
Jeffries Wyman, by Burt G. Wilder. Popular Science Monthly, Jan., 1875. Port.
Prof. Wilder, one of the most devoted and most distinguished of Wyman's pupils, also has an account of Wyman in Holt's "American Naturalists."
The Scientific Life, S. Weir Mitchell, Lippincott's Magazine, March, 1875.
Jeffries Wyman, Frederick W. Putnam.
Proceedings of the Amer. Acad. of Arts and Sci. n. s. vol. x. Contains a bibliography.
History of the Lowell Institute, Miss Harriette Knight Smith, 1898. Portrait.

  1. Holmes in a biographical sketch of Wyman in the Atlantic Monthly for November, 1874, has given an interesting description of the museum.