Popular Science Monthly/Volume 10/January 1877/The Study and Teaching of Biology


By Professor H. NEWELL MARTIN, D. Sc., M. B., B. A.

WE meet to-morrow to formally begin the biological work of this University to commence that systematic study of animal and vegetable form and function, relationship and distribution, which we include under the names of Comparative Anatomy, Zoölogy, Physiology and Botany, or in the general terms Biology or Natural History. I have thought that it might be well to-day to take an opportunity of laying before you what seem to be the ends which we should hold in view, and the methods on which we should work, if we are to attain or to deserve a permanent success. I am further induced to take this course by the fact that our present year's work is confessedly of a tentative nature: one main object of it being to enable us to decide upon what lines we are to go forward in the future; and I believe it may facilitate decision on some points if we have before us, as a sort of basis for discussion, a definite statement of views on the subject, no matter how imperfect such statement may be in itself, or how much the opinions expressed in it may afterward be found to require modification. What I propose, therefore, is not simply to tell you what are our arrangements for this year, but also to put before you some thoughts as to what I think we ought to do in the time to come. It is, I am sure, unnecessary for me to dilate at any length, before this audience, upon the interest and importance of biological studies. However contributory to our culture and welfare other studies may be, biology has, and ever must have, a very special interest of its own: it alone deals with the living organisms which surround us, and which are the only things that share with us that wonderful collocation and interaction of natural forces which we call life. Biology, too, includes within its range the study of man himself, so far as one side of his nature is concerned; and, as regards his mental and moral qualities, the psychologist and sociologist have already begun to recognize that the progress of their sciences is closely bound up with the development of certain branches of biology. As regards its practical value I might set forth at length the indebtedness of scientific medicine and of sanitary science to biology; but I prefer not to recommend the study to you by such considerations. This is a university: and the object of a university, I take it, is directly to promote liberality of thought and culture, and only indirectly to concern itself with the practical advancement of material welfare. It is concerned rather with the acquirement of a knowledge of principles than with their practical applications; although, in connection with it, it may have subsidiary schools where those who have already learned the principles may acquire a practical knowledge of various arts. Nevertheless it is true that, if we devote ourselves to the higher objects, the rest will be added unto us; for it is one of the great glories of all the physical sciences that, while second to none in the training which a study of them gives to all the faculties of the mind—in the promotion of large and liberal ideas, and in the gratification of that longing to "know," which is the noblest characteristic of the human intellect—they at the same time, as a by-thing, but constantly, contribute to the increase of man's comfort, and to the material prosperity and happiness of his race. Those who advance our knowledge of the laws of animal and vegetable life may work without any immediate outlook to the advancement of medicine, hygiene, and agriculture, but such advancement constantly follows and springs from their work, and will ever do so.

To those who are in any degree acquainted with the state of the scientific world, the present must seem a specially opportune time for founding a biological school. At no previous period has such an interest been taken in biological problems, or have so many earnest workers been in the field—never before has so rich a harvest been in view. This is mainly owing to the promulgation of two great ideas within the last few years. On the morphological side we have the doctrine of evolution applied to living forms, and especially as definitely put forward by the theory of the origin of species by natural selection; while on the physiological side we have the doctrine of the conservation of energy, and its extension to the play of forces in living organisms. It matters not whether these theories be correct representations of the facts or not, or whether increase of knowledge confirms or upsets them—in any case they have been of incalculable importance in stimulating work and in giving a present and direct significance to its results. I can imagine no time for the biologist to live in which would be more interesting than the coming half-century, or none in which he will have a greater incentive to study; he seems to have almost within his grasp the solution of problems of the widest significance.

Those of us directly concerned in the administration of the biological laboratory here, are charged with the fulfillment of two duties: we have to make provision for the advancement of knowledge, and for its diffusion: we are to find accommodation and assistance for both investigators and students; while we must not suffer those engaged in research to be crowded out by beginners, neither must the beginners be overlooked in providing for those to whom they are one day to succeed. The liberal space at our disposal will permit us, at any rate for the present, to accommodate both classes of workers, without risk of the extermination of either. Meanwhile I have, then, to occupy your time with a few words on two subjects: on biological research, and on biological teaching.

One hears a good deal talked nowadays of scientific research, and among it a good deal of what I cannot but think mischievous nonsense about the peculiar powers required by scientific investigators. To listen to many, one would suppose that the faculty of adding anything whatever to natural knowledge was one possessed by extremely few persons. I believe, on the contrary, that any man possessed of average ability and somewhat more than average perseverance, is capable, if he will, of doing good original scientific work. Any hardworking and commonly intelligent man, who likes his profession, will make a good soldier, or lawyer, or doctor, though that combination of powers which makes the great general, or the great jurist, or the great physician, is given to but few.

So it is with the pursuit of Science: assuredly not every one of her followers, very probably not one among us now present, will become a Linnæus, or a Cuvier, or an Agassiz. It may not be given to any of us to make some brilliant discovery, or to first expound some illuminating generalization; but we can, each and all, if we will, do good and valuable work in elucidating the details of various branches of knowledge. All that is needed for such work, besides some leisure, intelligence, and common-sense (and the more of each the better), is undaunted perseverance and absolute truthfulness; a perseverance unabated by failure after failure, and a truthfulness incapable of the least perversion (either by way of omission or commission) in the description of an observation or of an experiment, or of the least reluctance to acknowledge an error once it is found to have been made. Moreover, this love of truth must extend to a constant searching and inquisition of the mind, with the perpetual endeavor to keep inferences from observation or experiment unbiased, so far as may be, by natural predilections or favorite theories. Perfect success in such an endeavor is, perhaps, unattainable, but the scientific worker must ever strive after it; theories are necessary to guide and systematize his work, and to lead to its prosecution in new directions, but they must be servants, and not masters. I may, perhaps, seem to be insisting at too great length on a self-evident point; but the more one knows of scientific work and workers, the more does one realize the importance and the difficulty of attaining a perfectly-balanced mind and of arriving at an unprejudiced deduction from observation.

I believe, then, that the only absolutely necessary faculties for the scientific investigator are love of his work, perseverance, and truthfulness; to make the great leader and master in science, one of those who cast a new ray of light on our conceptions of the universe, other and far rarer powers are, of course, needed—the most essential being originality of thought; and, as that cannot be either self-taught or taught from outside but must be born in the bone, all that the rest of us can do when we meet such men is to give them a free course and ungrudging help. That an army may attain its best success, needs indeed that every man be brave and loyal, but it is by no means requisite that every soldier be a brigadier-general; so in the army of Science there is place for soldiers of all ranks and capabilities—and, at any rate, we know this, that Nature reveals her secrets, which are her rewards, on no system of purchase or favoritism—what a man deserves that he gets, every drummer-boy who enters her service carries the marshal's bâton in his pocket. His reward will be proportionate to the amount of time and intelligence he devotes to his work; given, in addition, certain opportunities which every one has not for himself, but which it is one great object of such institutions as this to provide for all.

If what I have just stated be the general requisites of the scientific investigator, we have next to inquire what special needs has the biologist: these may all be ground under the head of preliminary training. He must have a fair knowledge of mechanics, experimental physics, and chemistry; he ought to (I would almost again say he must) be able, besides English, to read at least French and German with facility—assuredly, if he cannot, he will labor with much toil and sorrow—and the more mathematics he knows, with the present rapid importation of quantitative ideas into biological science, the better for him; and for certain special branches of biological work there are other special needs. No mistake is more disastrous than the idea that a man can be a botanist and nothing more; a zoölogist, and nothing more; a physiologist, and nothing more. It is true that no one can be master of all the physical sciences, but it is none the less true that hardly one of them can be entirely neglected by the biologist. Animals and plants are, after all, material objects, and live in accordance with the laws that govern matter; but the manifestations of these laws are so often obscured and complicated by the conditions in which they occur in living things, that the understanding of them is only to be got at by approaching them through their simpler manifestations in inorganic bodies. But, apart from that, definite knowledge of various sciences is constantly required by the biologist. How can one ignorant of physics have any real appreciation of the statement that the transmission of a nervous impulse is accompanied by a molecular alteration in the structure of a nerve-fibre, one sign of which is a certain very definite and peculiar alteration in its electrical properties; or how can one ignorant of chemistry grasp the fundamental statement that muscular work is in the long-run dependent on the breaking down of complex chemical molecules into simpler and more stable ones? How can the zoölogist or botanist scientifically study the distribution of animals and plants in space, unless he has a knowledge of physical geography; or in time, unless he knows something of geology? I need not prolong the list.

Furthermore, no one can properly study any branch of biology without some knowledge of its other divisions. The fundamental laws of animal and vegetable life are identical, and only fully realized by comparison; so, while the scientific botanist, to fully appreciate the facts of his own science, must be something of a zoölogist, so must the zoölogist know something of plants: no one living being or group of living beings can be properly understood by itself. To take other examples: how is the morphologist to deal with such problems as those presented to him by rudimentary organs, unless he know something of the functions of parts, which is the special domain of physiology; or, how is he to understand the influence of external conditions in the production and preservation of variations in force, without, again, this knowledge of function? And, as regards the physiologist, he has frequently to search the whole animal and vegetable kingdoms not only to discover those forms which give him the best opportunity of studying certain phenomena, but also to get at those fundamental ideas which lie at the base of his whole science. What general and broad ideas should we have of the contractility of protoplasm if we only knew it in the highly-specialized form of a muscular contraction; or of its irritability, if we only knew it as exhibited in the nervous apparatus of one of the higher animals? It is quite true that, without any breadth of knowledge, a man may collect, label, and store away thousands of plants; he may macerate and articulate the most beautiful skeletons; he may cut, stain, and mount, the most exquisite microscopic preparations: but assuredly he is not likely to do any work entitled to the name scientific; such mechanical work has its value, no doubt, but it is only preliminary to real scientific work—which latter requires wide knowledge and extended views, and is more valuable the broader the foundation on which it has been built up.

It is this mutual dependence of biological studies which appears to me the justification of grouping together, as we do here, the study of such a number of vast subjects in a single laboratory. By that means each investigator will receive knowledge and assistance from the other; under such a system the desirable intercommunication of ideas is rendered most easy; and we are most likely to escape that narrow specialism which every laboratory in the long-run has a tendency to get into. Of course, no one person is capable of giving detailed assistance in investigations in all the branches of biology; but our staff of professors will doubtless grow, and meantime we shall, I trust, by the associate and fellowship system of the university, have at all times among us well-qualified men in every branch of biology; so that no one fitted for the task, and earnest and willing in its prosecution, who may come here to undertake any special research, will fail to find some one able and willing to advise him when he needs advice, and to assist him when he needs assistance.

What we want here, then, is men with the requisite zeal and training for investigation—we care not whether classification, or morphology, or physiology, or any other branch of biology is their specialty; all we claim is that they shall be able to work, shall mean to work, and shall work—we shall give no quarter to the indolent or ignorant: the former we will not have on any terms, and the latter must enter for the preparatory courses, and will not be allowed to occupy tables set apart for research. Surely, if we select wisely, and find men to work faithfully, we may look forward with confidence to the time when we shall find ourselves in the condition of such laboratories as those of some of the German universities, where, on account of the high class of work, done in them, the ablest young men from all over the world beg for admission; where one finds, working side by side, men from every civilized nation, and where, in the presence of the great demand for admission, entry is esteemed a precious privilege.

As to the special aid which we can offer to those who come among us to engage in investigation, it will, of course, depend on two factors, upon the natural gifts of those charged with the supervision of the laboratory, and the amount of money which those whose duty it is to decide on such matters see right to place at their disposal: for, however important we biologists may think ourselves, the fact remains that there are other studies to be provided for, and studies just as important as our own. For the present I can say, however, that we have at our disposal one large and well-lighted room for general work a room fitted up for physiologico-chemical investigations—and several smaller rooms for physiological and histological research. As regards instruments we have ordered, and in part received, a very excellent stock, including the most essential ones for every branch of physiological research—and I have no doubt that every year we shall receive grants to add to our stock, and keep up with the times.

The zoölogical and comparative anatomy departments differ from the physiological in not needing so many special instruments; what they mainly need are (besides work-rooms) material for examination and dissection, and books, especially monographs, and those we shall make it a point, to the best of our power, to obtain from time to time as they are wanted. It seems to me that it is not our duty to provide vast herbaria and museums containing every plant and animal under the sun—to provide such collections is the duty rather of the nation than of a university—nor do I think we should be wise to collect and store away things promiscuously, in the hope that some one will want them some time. We should rather concentrate our force on getting what is wanted for the time being. If some one wants to elucidate any point in the structure of the Echinoderms, for example, we should do our best to obtain specimens for him—even from all parts of the world; if some one else wants to work at the embryology of any fish or amphibian, we should again endeavor to get him the eggs in various stages of development, and so on; but I doubt the wisdom of sending out collectors with orders to store away everything they can catch, fish, flesh, and fowl, in spirit, and send it to us. We have nowhere to display such collections if we got them—the vastly greater part of them would never be used—and when reference to extensive collections is necessary, we have always at hand the admirable museum illustrating the fauna and flora of this State which is being brought together by the Academy of Sciences in this city, and the national collections at Washington are within an hour's journey of us. Bringing together from time to time such materials for special researches as I have indicated above, will naturally entail considerable expenditure, but I am sure that the trustees, if they see we mean work, will do all they can to supply our needs.

Now let us turn to the other part of our subject, biological teaching: from part of what I have already said you have doubtless gathered something of my views on this matter. If biology be the complicated study that I have endeavored to indicate, it is in the first place clear that, in justice both to the student and his teachers, a certain preliminary training must be insisted upon as a preparation for his admission to a biological laboratory; at least the student must have a fair knowledge of physics and chemistry before he comes there; and, when he gets there, the thing next to insist upon is, that his teaching be as largely demonstrative and practical as possible, lectures being made of secondary and laboratory-work of primary importance.

It matters not to me where the student gets this preparatory knowledge: whether here or at some other institution. I believe he ought to acquire it largely at school, as a part of general education; but, as that seems in the present condition of primary education almost impossible, I shall perhaps best make clear my ideas on the matter if I endeavor to sketch out what I think should be the course gone through by a youth fresh from some high-school or college, where he has got an otherwise sound general education, but without anything more than a sham knowledge of physics, and who enters this university with the intention of qualifying himself for biological research or teaching hereafter; and you will, I hope, forgive me if, with the same object of obtaining clearness, I put what I have to say into a somewhat dogmatic form.

Such a person ought to enter at once upon courses of instruction in experimental physics and chemistry, and devote almost wholly his first year to them; but during the latter part of that year, say between the spring vacation and the end of the session, he would, in addition, go through a course of instruction in what we may call general biology. By that I mean a course of instruction in which he would acquire some knowledge of how to use his microscope and how to dissect, and thus gain a certain amount of that special manipulative dexterity which he will require afterward. He would also gain a general acquaintance with biological ideas, and with the meaning of the more important technical terms: he would gain, for example, a real, because a practical, knowledge of what we mean by classification, and of the principles on which classifications are founded; he would learn similarly, with his eyes as well as his ears, what we mean by morphology, and homology, and a host of similar terms; and he would, in addition, acquire a special acquaintance with the structure and actions of certain selected typical animal and vegetable forms. This, then, would finish the first year's work, unless our student should be ignorant of French and German. If so, he ought also to acquire, what is really very easily got, at least a fair reading knowledge of those languages.

At the commencement of his second year the student should enter for two elementary practical courses, one on comparative anatomy and zoölogy, the other on animal physiology. These courses would, I imagine, last about six months each, and they should be taken pari passu. Each would consist, say, of two lectures a week, and the rest of the time would be filled up with the dissection of typical animals, the performance of the simpler physiological experiments, and the preparation and examination of microscopic specimens of animal tissues, all illustrative of the main points put forward in the lectures. The student would also be made to draw sketches of his dissections and microscopic preparations, and to describe them and the results of his experiments briefly in writing, and so while learning thoroughly how to dissect and use his microscope, and the conditions of success in physiological experiment, he would also have his powers of observation regularly trained and tested.

In connection with these courses there should be a museum, containing not a bewildering multitude of specimens, but a small number of dissections and skeletons of typical animals, especially of those which it is important for the student to know, but which are too rare to be obtained in quantities allowing each to dissect one for himself; and these specimens should be so placed that they may be freely accessible to those desiring to study them. It is far better to have to replace an injured specimen occasionally than to have the things locked up behind glass doors, so as to render their thorough examination impracticable to those for whose examination they are placed there. Moreover, especially in connection with the physiological course, there would be needed from time to time, according to the subject-matter of the lectures, demonstrations of certain points; in cases, for instance, needing the employment of the more delicate instruments, or where niceties of manipulation were required, such as a beginner could not be fairly expected to overcome.

I ought perhaps here to refer to the subject of vivisection. Physiology is concerned with the phenomena going on in living things, and vital processes cannot be observed in dead bodies; and from what I have said you will have gathered that I intend to employ vivisections in teaching. I want, however, to say, once for all, that here, for teaching purposes, no painful experiment will be performed. Fortunately, the vast majority of physiological experiments can nowadays be performed without the infliction of pain, either by the administration of some of the many anæsthetics known, or by previous removal of parts of the central nervous system; and such experiments alone will be used here for teaching. With regard to physiological research the case is different: happily here too the number of necessarily painful experiments is very small indeed; but in any case where the furtherance of physiological knowledge is at stake—where the progress of that science is concerned, on which all medicine is based, so far as it is not a mere empiricism—I cannot doubt that we have a right to inflict suffering upon the lower animals, always provided that it be reduced to the minimum possible, and that none but competent persons be allowed to undertake such experiments. Placed, moreover, as we shall be here, in more or less close connection with a splendidly-equipped hospital, so that we shall be able constantly to combine skilled pathological observation with physiological experiment in an excellent laboratory, we have duties to perform toward the advancement of scientific medicine, from whose performance I believe it would be criminal in us, as it would be shameful, to flinch in any way.

But to return to our special subject: the last three months of the student's second year should be occupied with a laboratory course of instruction in vegetable morphology and physiology, and with a course of lectures on embryology, accompanied with a full practical study of the development of the chick from the earliest stages of incubation.

The student will have now got an extensive acquaintance with biological facts and methods, and henceforth he should be allowed and encouraged to specialize his work. He would be permitted to select for, more detailed study in his third year either animal morphology, or botany, or physiology, and the best men in each subject would be picked out and allowed to act as demonstrators to the second-year students, and so be given the opportunity of acquiring a far more accurate knowledge than they could attain in any other way. For these third-year men, too, short advanced courses of lectures would be given from time to time, such as on the physiology of nutrition, the physiology of the senses, the geographical distribution of animals, on special morphological points, and so on, and also on the more important recent discoveries in various branches; and the best of them might be put on some easy bit of original work, to try their metal and whet their appetites.

After all this has been gone through, I think we can do no more in the way of teaching for our typical student; he has now advanced enough to teach himself, and, if he is good for anything, will do it better than others can do it for him. I think that among students so taught, as I have endeavored to indicate, we should be certain to meet with a large number of well-qualified men from among whom to select some of our fellows and associates, and would be justified in expecting from them work of the highest quality. As regards the remainder, those who display no special aptitude for scientific investigation, or no desire to devote themselves to science as a profession, they will at least have had the opportunity of acquiring a very thorough and practical knowledge of what modern biology means.

It now remains for me to give a sketch of what our work for the present year will be, so far as I see my way at present. To-morrow I commence a course of lectures on animal physiology, which I propose to deliver twice a week, on Tuesdays and Fridays, at 1.15 p. m. I have been induced to select this hour on account of special circumstances affecting many of those who wish to attend this year, though as a general rule I should like an earlier hour, nine or ten in the morning, which definitely brings a man early in the day to the laboratory, and gives me a better chance of getting a good day's work out of him. These lectures will be designed rather for those who have already some knowledge of physiology than for beginners; for so many instruments have not yet arrived, and so many arrangements are necessarily as yet imperfect, that it seems better for the present only to invite men who are more or less fitted by previous training to overcome such occasional difficulties and inconveniences as may from time to time arise from such causes. When I say that the lectures will be rather adapted for advanced students than beginners, I do not mean, however, that I shall omit elementary but important facts, but that, in addition to those, I shall from time to time discuss at more or less length points which are still sub judice. The lectures will be illustrated by no experiments: partly because, on account of the rapid changes which go on in living tissues, physiological-lecture experiments are likely to be the reverse of successful (a frog's muscle which has been lying on the table since the commencement of a lecture is very apt to contract abnormally when the lecturer wants it); but mainly because I want each student to make the illustrative observations and experiments for himself—except in cases of unusual difficulty, when demonstrations will be given at such hours as may be found most convenient to the majority. In the lectures I shall presuppose the possession by each present of such a knowledge of anatomy as is necessary for physiological work, and, starting with the structure of blood, go regularly on through the histology and physiology of the tissues and organs of the animal body. These lectures will continue until the spring vacation, and then I mean to set to work specially for more elementary students, and put them through such a course of general biology as I have already described; but possibly either Dr. Brooks or myself will give at that time some instruction in embryology of a more advanced character.

As regards physiological research, several gentlemen have already consulted me with reference to undertaking investigations in different directions, and of course there is plenty of work to be done should others qualified for it present themselves. One difficulty which I have met with is that many seem to consider that a physiological investigation can be carried on by devoting to it an hour or two at irregular intervals: I feel quite sure that no good work is likely to be done in that way, and am not inclined to encourage such workers. Some, at least, of those engaged in investigation will be able to have accommodation in the special rooms, apart from the general laboratory, which have been provided for that purpose.

On the zoölogical and morphological side no arrangements have as yet been made for a lecture and laboratory course this year, nor so far as I know has any such demand as would render it advisable shown itself. Should it do so, however, we may, perhaps, make arrangements for elementary instruction in those subjects, under the more immediate superintendence of Dr. Brooks, our associate in biology, upon whose shoulders I must throw most of the burden of that side of the work. We shall, at any rate, collect material and make other preparations for such a course next year. After Christmas Dr. Brooks will give a course of lectures on "Morphological Theories."

For the present, too, we shall have in the laboratory several well-trained zoölogists and morphologists; some engaged in prosecuting advanced studies, others in research. I fancy all of them are (as they ought to be) pretty well qualified to take care of themselves; but Dr. Brooks and myself will do our best to give them such assistance as they may need, and to make arrangements by which they can be supplied with such material as they require.

In conclusion, let me say a word to those of you here present who are to be the first workers with me in this laboratory. It behooves you as well as me to recognize what a heavy responsibility lies upon us. Upon the work that we do and the spirit in which we do it, upon the character we give our laboratory at its start, much of its future success or failure depends. If we all work honestly and thoroughly, it will win esteem and reputation; if we are careless and half-hearted, it will become of low repute. Let us, then, each work loyally, earnestly, truthfully, so that when the time comes, as it will come sooner or later, in one way or another, to each of us, to depart hence, we may carry with us a good conscience, and be able to say that in our time no slipshod piece of work ever left the laboratory; that no error we knew of was persisted in; that our only desire was to know the truth. Let us leave a record which, if it perchance contain the history of no great feat in the memory of which our successors will glory, will at least contain not one jot or one tittle of which they can be ashamed.

  1. An introductory lecture delivered at the Johns Hopkins University, October 23, 1876.