Popular Science Monthly/Volume 28/December 1885/Sketch of Professor Alpheus Hyatt

950727Popular Science Monthly Volume 28 December 1885 — Sketch of Professor Alpheus Hyatt1885Ralph S. Tarr




PROFESSOR HYATT was born April 5, 1838, in Washington, D.C. He attended various schools, among them the Maryland Military Academy, then under the direction of Captain Allen, an ex-officer of the regular army, an old-fashioned teacher, and somewhat of a naturalist, lie entered the class of 1860 in Yale College, but after the Freshman year he left the institution to travel for a year in Europe. Returning, he entered the Lawrence Scientific School at Cambridge in 1858, where he took the highest degree, under Agassiz, in 1862.

His parents intended that he should become a merchant; but this was not congenial to the youth's natural tastes, and it was considered the next best course for him to study law. After pursuing for nearly two years studies which were distasteful to him, he finally broke away from college and went to Europe. Upon his return he determined to learn engineering. Thinking that a course in geology would be an excellent introduction to this branch, and attracted by the great name of Agassiz, he began to study that science at the Lawrence Scientific School. While at Cambridge, being attracted by a fine collection of Ammonites, he asked permission to study them, and, after graduation, published a monograph upon them. After a period of service as captain in the army he renewed his studies under Agassiz, in a class which included such students, since become eminent naturalists, as A E. Verrill, A. S. Packard, N. S. Shaler, S. H. Scudder, F. W. Putnam, E. S. Morse, A. Agassiz, Theodore Lyman, J. A. Allen, and A. S. Bickmore. He afterward went to Salem, where Putnam was curator in the Essex Institute, and in 1807 became one of the curators, Morse and Packard afterward came in, and the four founded and for some years edited the "American Naturalist," which is now published in Philadelphia. These same young naturalists were also instrumental, together with officers of the Essex Institute, in founding the Peabody Academy of Sciences at Salem. They formed the first scientific staff, and together planned the museum, in which Professor Hyatt was appointed a curator in 1809. In the year 1871 Professor Hyatt was elected Custodian of the Boston Society of Natural History, and in 1872 he went to Europe, with his family, to finish the studies on Ammonites which he had begun in the Museum of Comparative Zoölogy in 1861. In 1881 he was elected Curator of the Boston Society. In addition to this he is unofficially in charge of the fossil cephalopods of the Museum of Comparative Zoölogy at Cambridge, and is Professor of Zoölogy and Paleontology in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He also has a class from Boston University, and in connection with the Boston Society is manager of the Teachers' School of Science, which was founded in 1870-'71, for the purpose of giving lectures to teachers in Boston and vicinity.

The Society of Naturalists of Eastern United States, founded in 1883, really arose from an idea of Professor Hyatt's that there should be a society representing the practical side of natural history. lie communicated his ideas to Professor Clark, of Williams College, who realized the value of the plan; and it was mainly through the executive ability and energy of Professor Clark that the first meeting was called at Springfield. Professor Hyatt was elected first president of the society for a term of two years. In 1869 he was elected Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and in 1875 he became Fellow of the National Academy.

In his scientific researches Professor Hyatt has been exceedingly active. He first published an article upon "Beatrecia," a large and curious fossil first described as a tree, and then successively placed by different authors in all the several classes of Invertebrata, till at last, by another paper of Professor Hyatt's, it has been again shifted to the Protozoa. In 1866 appeared his "Observations on Polyzoa," an article of importance at that time, upon the structure of this curious and beautiful group of fresh-water animals. This was followed, in 1867, by an article upon "Parallelism between Different Stages of Life in Tetrabranchiata," and in 1872 by an important paper upon the "Fossil Cephalopods of the Museum of Comparative Zoölogy." In these and other subsequent pamphlets upon the fossil cephalopods he has steadily endeavored to elaborate a practical demonstration of the theory of evolution, and to illustrate the laws by which this has taken place among the cephalopods. One of his best works is "Revision of North American Poriferæ," the only work on North American commercial sponges, and one which is recognized throughout the world as one of the finest monographs of Porifera ever published. The field was entirely unexplored, and the group one of the hardest in the animal kingdom—so hard, in fact, that few naturalists have ever touched it. In his "Effects of Gravity upon Forms of the Shells of Planorbis," Professor Hyatt shows how important the action of gravity has been in modifying the shape of the shells of Ammonites and other animals, pointing out many cases where it has undoubtedly fundamentally affected the forms of shells and the growth of the parts and organs of the animals, and produced specific and generic modifications. Some of Professor Hyatt's most important theories have been set forth in an extensive paper, entitled "Genesis of Tertiary Species of Planorbis at Steinheim." It covers one hundred pages, quarto, and has nine plates. Professor Hyatt went to Steinheim with the intention of making additional observations and proving Hilgendorf's theory of the evolution of Planorbis, which was then recognized by paleontologists in Europe as the only positive demonstration of the theory of evolution. He obtained a much larger series of Planorbis than Hilgendorf bad, and was obliged to prove that, although there was a general gradation from the flattened species to the spiral, through many intermediate forms, it was not true that the series of species succeeded each other in time, as claimed by Hilgendorf. All the species, in all their curious modifications, were found together in the lower stratum. Theoretically a graded series was traceable; and no doubt the flattened spiral forms were the ancestors of the more conical spiral forms, lie also pointed out the marked resemblance between diseased and wounded individuals of a species, and the degraded form and the correlations of these with the transformations taking place in the old age of other and healthier species of the same group. He attributes his result to the use of mechanical methods. The shells were gathered in bags, carefully labeled, from each stratum, taken home, sifted through graded sieves constructed for the purpose, and every specimen, to the number of several hundreds in each bag, was thus necessarily passed through his hands. Professor Richard Owen, the eminent anatomist. Director of the British Museum, has said of this memoir, "It is a model of the mode in which such researches should be conducted." Besides these, Professor Hyatt is the author of many smaller papers upon nearly all subjects relating to natural history, and he has described many new genera of cephalopods.

Professor Hyatt has discovered that evolutionary changes in general were much more rapid in earlier ages than now, and could be compared closely with the isolated cases of very rapid evolution of forms in such limited localities occurring in later times, as at Steinheim. For instance, in the Silurian period there was a continual struggle for better adaptation to the environment. In other Paleozoic ages, also, evolution must have been rapid to have accounted for the observed changes. It must have been particularly rapid immediately after the groups or individuals originated, and thus should be represented as expanding suddenly from their point of origin, like the spokes of an expanded fan. He further believes that evolution of Cephalopoda has taken place both by progression and retrogression, in four branches. From the straight orthoceratic forms all fossil and modern Cephalopoda have descended. To use his own words: "The efforts of the Orthoceratite to adapt itself fully to the requirements of a mixed habitat gave the world the Nautiloidea; the efforts of the same type to become completely a littoral crawler developed the Animonoidea. The successive forms of the Belemnoidea arose in the same way; but here the ground-swimming habitat and complete fitness, for that was the object, whereas the Sepoidea represent the highest aims, as well as the highest attainments, of the Orthoceratitcs, in their surface-swimming and rapacious forms." No better group for the study of evolution is found in fossiliferous beds, for in the shells every step of growth can be traced, and it can be seen that the coiled forms all go through the orthoceratitic or straight stage, or an approximate form, at an early embryological period. In these shells, too, all varieties, by disease or accident, are clearly shown, and this has led to the well-supported theory brought forth by Professor Hyatt, that much of the evolution of Cephalopods has been directly caused by pathological conditions—accidents or diseases transmitted to successive individuals, until they become firmly established inherited variations, and lead, in the Cretaceous period, to the death of one of the four orders of cephalopods, the Ammonoidea.

Among the subjects upon which Professor Hyatt is at present at work is his "Theory of Cellular Tissues" just published. This contains his theory of the origin of sex, which is one of the most important that he has ever published. It is that the nuclei of cells are both male and female; that gradually in some cells one element, perhaps the male, might predominate, while in others the female would be strongest. Thus we would have the metazoa stage, where the male and female cells are distinct from each other, but still mixed in the same layer. This specialization goes on until in the coelenterates we find special layers of cells especially adapted to perform the function of male or female elements, and later, in the vertebrates, separate animals represent the separate elements. This theory he supports by many interesting facts. In the same paper he endeavors to show that sponges are intermediate between metazoa and protozoa. It is very well established that the body-cavity which immediately surrounds the stomach of all vertebrates is homologous to the sacs which spring out from the body-cavity of coelenterates, and Professor Hyatt's theory is that these sacs are homologous to the branching cavities and sacs which spring from the central cavity in sponges, and further that these fundamental structural modifications originated independently in sponges, in cœlenterates, and probably in vertebrates, from ancestors which never possessed any such characteristic.

The most useful work which Professor Hyatt has done, and that for which be deserves much credit, is in connection with popular science-teaching. His way of teaching is original, and intended to inspire the student with a love for natural history, by teaching him to look about for himself and observe what there is to see. His first interview and study with Louis Agassiz had much to do with shaping his course, and formed the basis of his system of teaching. Since this study has had such an important bearing upon his life, we reproduce the account of it in Professor Hyatt's own words. Professor Hyatt says: "He gave me a Pentacrinite, or stone-lily, a rather complex fossil, and told me to study it. This I thought to be easy work, so I took a stroll in the afternoon and thought little of it. Next morning he came up to my table and asked me what I had found, I had never studied from Nature before, and began giving a very general description, saying that it was a fossil petrifaction, etc., and had what appeared to be the beginning of a stem. When I got to this point, he said, in an impatient tone: 'Stop! stop! you don't know anything about it. It is just what I expected. You haven't told me anything that you know. Look at it again and tell me something that you see for yourself!' I had faint book remembrances, and had been relying upon these. Taken all aback at this, I began to work. I thought about it all day and dreamed about it at night. Next morning 1 began to tell him what I had found out, and before I was one quarter through he stopped me, saying, 'That is good; but,' he added, 'you have not yet told me what I want.' With this he pointed to the side of the room where star-fishes, ophiurians, and sea-urchins were kept, and told me to see what more he wanted. In this blind way, with no further hint, I worked unsuccessfully for a long time; then I found that I had omitted the most conspicuous point, the star-like appearance. Not knowing whether this was of importance or not, I timidly reported at the next interview this resemblance to the star-fishes, and Professor Agassiz was satisfied. This burned into my mind the most important lesson of my life: how to get real knowledge by observation, and how to use it by comparison and inference." His acquaintance with Darwin, though confined to a few letters and a short personal visit while in England, had also a marked influence on his life, for he saw here the greatest of naturalists living in a simple, unostentatious manner, paying respectful attention to the studies of even comparatively unknown young naturalists, not anxious, above all things, to claim even that which was due him, but to render justice to the researches and ideas of others. This was so contrary to the usual practice of claiming all possible credit for intellectual results that it produced a profound impression upon Professor Hyatt, and it has influenced his life as it has that of many of the existing generation.

In teaching, Professor Hyatt uses books as little as possible; his lectures, and those which he superintends before the teachers in the Teachers School of Science, are delivered in a novel manner. Noted investigators are chosen to deliver the courses, which cover all branches of the objective sciences, as Professor Hyatt calls them, except astronomy. The idea of the lectures is to fit teachers for teaching elementary sciences in the public schools. In all cases except physical geography it has been found possible to give each member of the audience specimens of the thing described, so that they may follow the lecturer with the objects in hand, and take them away afterward.

In connection with this branch of instruction, the Natural History Society has issued a series of "Guides for Science-Teaching," of which nine have already appeared. They are all prepared under the guidance of Professor Hyatt, and he himself is the author of five, namely, "About Pebbles," "Commercial and other Sponges," "Common Hydroids," "Corals and Echinoderms," "The Oyster, Clam, and other Common Mollusks," and "Worms and Crustaceans." They are all models of simplicity, and contain a general review of the subject treated. They are intended to give just such accounts as are calculated to inspire the teacher with the truths of nature, and at the same time to teach her the simplest and best way of impressing the facts upon the minds of young pupils. In the introduction to the work on pebbles, the author says: "When properly considered, the essay is a series of suggestions, not an exact, cut and dried process. The memorizing of a single part will spoil the effect of the design. If the older scholar, when the lessons are finished, can not go through with the whole process and show what he has been taught with the specimens, it may be considered as proof that it has been done too quickly for him to fully comprehend each of the various steps by which a pebble is formed." The same plan as the one so successful in the Teachers' School has been suggested for the public schools—that each pupil be supplied with a specimen of the object, and that they be asked in turn to point out its features.

During the first few years after the United States Fish Commission was founded. Professor Hyatt spent his summers at the summer station, being allowed by the kindness of the commissioner to collect specimens to illustrate his lectures. Since then, with but one or two exceptions, his summers have been spent at Annisquam, near Gloucester, Massachusetts, where he can study in quiet seclusion. Previous to 1879 he had been in the habit of allowing a few students from the Institute of Technology to study with him in his private laboratory at Annisquam. Soon, however, the number of applications became too numerous, and he could no longer accommodate all, so that in 1879 steps were taken toward founding a general laboratory of natural history to be situated at Annisquam. Each summer the laboratory has been open under the directorship of Professor Hyatt, assisted by Professor Van Vleck, who has immediate charge of all the work. The laboratory was founded and is supported by the Woman's Educational Society of Boston, and is open to both sexes, investigators and teachers being given the preference. Each year the tables are full, sometimes there being as many as fifteen in the laboratory at a time, including some original investigators. The student is given a specimen, and is told to study it carefully and see as much as he can; then to verify his results by referring to Mr. Van Vleck at first, and then to books chosen by him. Professor Hyatt endears himself to all who study with him by his kindness and the interest which he takes in the individual work of the pupil.

A museum as large as that of the Boston Society of Natural History, under the charge of a man so full of original ideas and having the interest of science-teaching at heart, and, at the same time, having such an experience at home and abroad, must of necessity undergo important changes and become unique in its plan. To show the ideas which Professor Hyatt entertains, we quote from his annual report as follows: "It is quite possible to so arrange and subsequently conduct a museum that it will be as much more effectual in this way (educational) than any art-gallery or library, as Nature herself is greater and more instructive than any imperfect imitations of her ever set in frames or between the covers of books." In his report for 1882 he says that there have been many requests for reference series for consultation, and he suggests that money be raised for the purpose of placing series of specimens illustrating different natural groups so that they may be handled by those having sufficient interest in the subject. This is an important suggestion, and, if it can be carried out, will greatly raise the educational standard of the Natural History Museum. He also suggests that descriptive catalogues of the museum be issued and distributed at frequent intervals.

In order to render the museum a true guide to the study of natural history, to make it, in fact, a natural system in itself, and to illustrate all the forms in a definite and natural manner, Professor Hyatt has adopted a superior plan of arrangement. Let us take, for example, the mineral and geological collection, which is now nearly completely arranged. First of all, the elements are shown, then the elements which enter into rock formations in an elementary form. Then there is a series of what might be called rock-elements—that is, rocks which are composed of one mineral, such as mica or limestone. We are then prepared for the final stage of rock-mixtures—such as conglomerates, granites, etc. Next are taken up the rocks as they are formed, either sedimentary or igneous, and so on through the whole rock-world, going step by step in a most natural way from the simplest to the most complex, from the elements to their compounds. This is the natural system, and is being adopted in other departments of the museum.

Such is Professor Hyatt's work. He is a scientist in every sense of the word, and holds a high rank among naturalists. Still, he is able to find time to render science popular—a great work, which scientists are not apt to appreciate and which few try to do. It is an important work, and the only way firmly to establish science upon the world; and that small body of men who are so unselfishly devoting their time to this grand work are deserving of far more credit than those who selfishly shut themselves from the rest of the world, and laboriously work away at abstruse problems, which, after they are discovered, are put in such terms as to be unintelligible to the average person. We repeat it, that those who are doing their best to render science popular are doing far more for true science than those who purposely shun such work, and confine themselves to uninteresting and often unimportant problems.