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Wyman, Jeffrieslocked

(11 August 1814–04 September 1874)
  • Toby A. Appel

Wyman, Jeffries (11 August 1814–04 September 1874), comparative anatomist, naturalist, and anthropologist, was born in Chelmsford, Massachusetts, the son of Rufus Wyman, a physician, and Ann Morrill. He was named after the Boston physician James Jeffries, preceptor in medicine to Wyman’s father. Wyman’s family moved to Somerville, Massachusetts, when his father, a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Medical School, was appointed physician of the McLean Asylum for the Insane. Wyman exhibited a childhood interest in dissection and sketching, two skills in which he later excelled.

After graduating from Harvard College in 1833, Wyman entered Harvard Medical School, at the same time studying medicine under preceptor John Call Dalton, Sr., father of the physiologist of the same name. Upon receiving his M.D. in 1837, Wyman appears to have attempted briefly to set up a medical practice. For the remainder of his career he did not practice medicine, although he taught in medical schools and maintained close ties to the medical community.

In 1837 Wyman became demonstrator to John Collins Warren, a professor of anatomy at Harvard Medical School and surgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital. Warren encouraged Wyman’s interest in comparative anatomy, a subject that Warren taught at Harvard College. Wyman also began a lifelong association with the Boston Society of Natural History in 1837; he soon became an officer and a curator. From 1839 to 1842 Wyman served as paid curator of the newly founded Lowell Institute, which sponsored public lecture series by prominent men. In 1840 John Amory Lowell, the sole trustee, provided the neophyte Wyman with the opportunity to present his own course of Lowell Lectures, the munificent fee for which enabled him to spend a year and a half obtaining advanced training in science and medicine in Europe. Wyman attended lectures in comparative anatomy and natural history at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris in 1841–1842, as well as lectures at the Faculté de Médecine and hospital clinics. Most significant for his later career were the several months in 1842 that he spent with the comparative anatomist Richard Owen at the Hunterian Museum in London. Based on the similarity of their theoretical views, Wyman may be regarded as an American disciple of Owen.

Wyman hoped that his training abroad would prepare him for a position at Harvard College. Disappointed when the new professorship of natural history went to Asa Gray in 1842, Wyman accepted a professorship of anatomy and physiology in the Medical Department of Hampden-Sydney College in Richmond, Virginia, which he held from 1843 to 1848. Unhappy in what he regarded as a southern cultural backwater, he longed to return to the Boston area.

During the 1840s Wyman acquired a reputation as an excellent comparative anatomist. He published on a wide variety of topics, including comparative anatomy, paleontology, parasitology, and ichthyology, and achieved some notoriety by exposing as a fake the skeleton of a supposed sea monster that was being exhibited to the public. His most memorable paper, “Notice of the External Characters and Habits of Troglodytes Gorilla, a New Species of Ourang from the Gaboon River. Osteology of the Same” (Boston Journal of Natural History 5[1847]: 417–43), named and described the gorilla based on bones sent from Africa by missionary Thomas Savage.

With the aid of Wyman’s brother, Morrill, and friends David Humphreys Storer and John A. Gould, on the retirement of Warren in 1847, Warren’s professorship was divided between the medical school and Harvard College, and a modest position was established for Wyman. Wyman was named Hersey Professor of Anatomy at Harvard College. Louis Agassiz was named a professor at Harvard a few months later. Soon after its founding in 1847 under Agassiz’s leadership, Wyman became a member of the faculty of the Lawrence Scientific School of Harvard and shared in the training of Agassiz’s advanced students. Wyman’s career at Harvard paralleled that of the more famous Agassiz. Their expertise was remarkably similar, but their personalities were widely different. Unlike Agassiz and many other of his contemporaries, Wyman avoided entrepreneurial activities and public controversy and was at his best interacting with individuals in a local setting. Throughout his career he was assisted by the personal patronage of wealthy Bostonians.

At Harvard, Wyman taught anatomy and physiology, embryology, and zoology. He began the extensive Museum of Comparative Anatomy consisting of his private collection. His museum was moved in 1858 to the new Boylston Hall at Harvard, built with the aid of local donations to accommodate his collections as well as the chemistry laboratory of his colleague and friend Josiah P. Cooke.

A sufferer from tuberculosis, Wyman traveled frequently for his health and to increase his collections. He went to Labrador in 1849; to Paramaribo, Surinam, in 1857; to La Plata, Argentina, in 1858; and to Florida eight times in the period 1852–1874, mostly to the area around the St. Johns River. He visited Europe and toured museums in 1853 and 1870. It was during one of his annual late summer trips to northern New Hampshire for his health in 1874 that Wyman died suddenly from a hemorrhage in Bethlehem, New Hampshire.

From 1854 to 1870 Wyman served as president of the Boston Society of Natural History. During this period the society began a new series of memoirs and moved into a new museum building in Back Bay. He presided over meetings in 1860 at which the issue of evolution was heatedly debated. Wyman was offered but declined the directorship of the society’s new museum; in part because he was seriously considering this offer he switched his affiliation from Harvard College to Harvard Medical School (which was in Boston) in 1866. In that year, Wyman became the first curator of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard, in which position he wrote on craniology and the archaeology of shell mounds and made major purchases of collections.

Wyman’s published works consist of approximately 200 mostly short and tersely written papers on comparative anatomy, embryology, parasitology, curious habits of animals, paleontology, bacteriology, anthropology, and archaeology. They appeared mainly in the American Journal of Sciences, the publications of the Boston Society of Natural History, and the American Naturalist. In keeping with his French training and work with Owen, Wyman took a morphological view of nature and, along with Agassiz, introduced “philosophical” (transcendental) anatomy to America. He became known for his thoroughness in research and care in writing, but also for his philosophical approach. Many of his papers established homologies of organs that suggested that animals were built according to an ideal plan or plans; some organs may exist in particular animals not because they have any practical function but to attest to the Creator’s plan.

Wyman was sympathetic to Darwin’s theories but tended to believe in a theistic, morphological form of evolution rather than natural selection. His major papers, besides that describing the discovery of the gorilla, included an examination of the blind fish of Mammoth Cave in Kentucky (1843 and 1854); the anatomy of Rana pipiens (1853); his review of Owen’s monograph on the Aye-aye in which he discussed evolution (1863); homologies of limbs in vertebrates and the suggestion that animals exhibit a fore-and-hind symmetry (1868); experiments on spontaneous; generation in response to Pasteur, in which Wyman demonstrated his sympathy toward spontaneous generation, which he saw as necessitated by evolution (1862 and 1867); a demonstration that the cells of the bee were not perfectly designed, and, by implication, that the cells might have been perfected through evolution (1868); physical anthropology of human crania (1868); the discovery that the crocodile’s range extended to Florida (1870); and the discovery of Indian shell mounds in Florida and evidence that they were made by pre-Columbian peoples (1875).

Wyman played a significant role as a teacher of many leaders of the next generation of naturalists including Frederic W. Putnam, Edward S. Morse, Nathaniel S. Shaler, Alpheus Hyatt, Burt G. Wilder, Alpheus S. Packard, and Addison E. Verrill. He acted as a balance to the often domineering and conservative Agassiz and helped their joint students make the transition to evolution. By promoting the careers of Henry Pickering Bowditch and S. Weir Mitchell, Wyman also encouraged the new discipline of experimental physiology in America.

A theist, Wyman attended the Unitarian Church at Harvard. He was twice married, in 1850 to Adeline Wheelright, who died in 1855, and in 1861 to Annie Williams Whitney, who died in 1864. He had two daughters, Mary and Susan, with his first wife and a son, Jeffries, father of the biophysicist Jeffries Wyman, Jr., with his second wife.

Wyman was widely admired for his modesty, integrity, care in methodology, and willingness to help others. He appeared to contemporaries as an exemplar of “the scientific life.” William James, one of his students, wrote of him: “His extraordinary personal effect on all who knew him is to be accounted for by the one word, Character” (Harvard Advocate, 1874).


The main collection of Wyman papers, which includes family correspondence and letters received by Wyman, is located at the Countway Library at Harvard University. Several of Wyman’s letters have been published by George E. Gifford, Jr., including “An American in Paris, 1841–1842: Four Letters from Jefffries Wyman,” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 22 (1967): 274–85; “Twelve Letters from Jeffries Wyman, M.D., Hampden-Sydney Medical College, Richmond, Virginia, 1843–1848,” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 20 (1965): 309–33; and Dear Jeffie: Being the Letters from Jeffries Wyman, First Director of the Peabody Museum, to His Son, Jeffries Wyman, Jr. (1978). See also A. Hunter Dupree, “Some Letters from Charles Darwin to Jeffries Wyman,” Isis 42 (1951): 104–10. Other recent articles on Wyman include R. N. Doetsch, “Early American Experiments on Spontaneous Generation by Jeffries Wyman (1814–1874),” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 17 (1962): 326–32; Toby A. Appel, “Jeffries Wyman, Philosophical Anatomy and the Scientific Reception of Darwin in America,” Journal of the History of Biology 21 (1988): 69–94; Robert E. Murrowchick, “A Curious Sort of Yankee: Personal and Professional Notes on Jeffries Wyman (1814–1874),” Southeastern Archaeology 9 (1990): 55–66; and Toby A. Appel, “A Scientific Career in the Age of Character: Jeffries Wyman and Natural History at Harvard,” in Science at Harvard University: Historical Perspectives, ed. Clarke A. Elliott and Margaret W. Rossiter (1992). Alpheus S. Packard’s obituary in National Academy of Sciences, Biographical Memoirs 2 (1886), contains a bibliography of Wyman’s publications.