Libbie Henrietta Hyman

Libbie Henrietta Hyman (1888-1969) was a specialist in invertebrate and vertebrate zoology. She produced a six-volume set of reference books titled The Invertebrates.

Libbie Henrietta Hyman earned an international reputation for her monumental six-volume work on the classification of invertebrates. Although she considered her invertebrate treatise essentially a "compilation" of the literature, others have called it a remarkable synthetic work. Compiled by one independent woman with enormous knowledge of the field and a great facility for translating European languages, it represents a textbook of the invertebrate animal kingdom that whole academies might have attempted. Hyman's treatise consists of judicious analysis and integration of previously scattered information; it has had a lasting influence on scientific thinking about a number of invertebrate animal groups, and the only works that can be compared with hers are of composite authorship. Hyman also influenced the teaching of zoology classes nationwide with the publication of her laboratory manuals.

Hyman was born on December 6, 1888 in Des Moines, Iowa, the third of four children and the only daughter. Her parents were Jewish immigrants; her father, Joseph Hyman, came to the United States from Konin, Poland, at age fourteen, and her mother, Sabina Neumann, was born in Stettin, Germany. Hyman's childhood and youth were spent in Fort Dodge, Iowa, where her father kept an unsuccessful clothing store. Her home life was strict and without affection. Her father, twenty years older than her mother, worried about his declining fortunes and ignored his children, although he did have scholarly inclinations, keeping volumes of Dickens and Shakespeare, which Hyman read. In her brief autobiography, Hyman remembered her mother as being "thoroughly infiltrated with the European worship of the male sex." Her mother required her to do "endless housework" caring for her brothers, whom Hyman believed were "brought up in idleness and irresponsibility."

From an early age, Hyman demonstrated an interest in nature. She learned the scientific names of flowers from a high-school botany book that belonged to her brothers, and she made collections of butterflies and moths. She remembered being initially puzzled by classification, until she suddenly realized that the flowers of a common cheeseweed were the same as the flowers of a hollyhock. In 1905, she graduated from Fort Dodge High School. She was class valedictorian but had failed to attract the attention of her science teachers. Although she passed the state examination for teaching in the country schools, she was too young to be appointed to a teaching position and so returned to high school during 1906 for advanced studies in science and German. When these classes ended, she took a factory job, pasting labels on oatmeal cereal boxes.

On her way home from the factory one fall afternoon, she met Mary Crawford, a Radcliffe graduate and high school language teacher who was "shocked" to learn what she was doing. Crawford arranged for Hyman to attend the University of Chicago with scholarship money that was available to top students. "To the best of my recollection," Hyman said, "it had never occurred to me to go to college. I scarcely understood the purpose of college." At the university, she began a course in botany, but was discouraged by anti-semitic harassment from a laboratory assistant. Instead, she majored in zoology and graduated in 1910 with a B.S. degree. Professor Charles Manning Child, from whom she had taken a course during her senior year, encouraged her to enter the graduate program. As Child's graduate assistant, she directed laboratory work for courses in elementary zoology and comparative vertebrate anatomy.

Hyman was not free from family responsibilities, however. Her father had died in 1907; her possessive mother moved to Chicago with her brothers, and Hyman was again required to keep house for them and endure their continuing disapproval of her career.

Hyman received her Ph.D. in 1915, when she was twenty-six years old, for a dissertation entitled, "An Analysis of the Process of Regeneration in Certain Microdrilous Oligochaetes." She then accepted an appointment as Child's research assistant, a position she held until he neared retirement. Her work in Child's laboratory consisted of conducting physiological experiments on lower invertebrates, including hydras and flatworms. It was during this time that Hyman realized that many of these common animals were misidentified because they had not been carefully studied taxonomically. She became a taxonomic specialist in these invertebrate groups. Hyman's interest in invertebrates had a strong aesthetic component; she confessed a deep fondness for "the soft delicate ones, the jellyfishes and corals and the beautiful microscopic organisms."

During her time as a laboratory assistant, helping Child direct his classes, Hyman had felt that a better student guide book was needed, and now she wrote one. A Laboratory Manual for Elementary Zoology was published in 1919 by the University of Chicago Press. The first printing quickly sold out, and in 1929 she wrote an expanded edition. She also published, in 1922, A Laboratory Manual for Comparative Vertebrate Anatomy, which also enjoyed brisk sales. The second edition of this manual was published in 1942 as Comparative Vertebrate Anatomy. She was never excited about vertebrates, however, and she refused to consider a third edition. (The third edition was published in 1979, the work of eleven contributors.)

By 1930, Hyman had realized she could live on the royalties from the sale of her laboratory manuals, and she resigned her position in the zoology department, leaving Chicago in 1931 to tour western Europe for fifteen months. She never again worked for wages. When she returned from her travels, she settled near the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, where she lived modestly, close to the museum's "magnificent" library, determined to devote all of her time to writing a treatise on the invertebrates. In 1937, she was made an honorary research associate of the museum. Although unsalaried, she was given an office, where she placed food and water at the window for pigeons. The first volume of The Invertebrates appeared in 1940.

Hyman had always wanted to live in the country and indulge her interest in gardening. In 1941, she bought a house in Millwood, Westchester County, about thirty-five miles north of Times Square. She commuted to her work at the museum until 1952, when she sold the house and returned to New York City. Although she said that gardening and commuting had taken time away from her treatise, during those years of residence in the country she completed the second and third volumes, which were both published in 1951. At the museum, Hyman spent most of her time in the library. She read, made notes, digested information, composed in her head, and typed the first and only draft of her books on her manual typewriter. She also taught herself drawing, and her books contain her own illustrations. She apparently never had a secretary or an assistant. The fourth volume of the treatise was published in 1955, and the fifth in 1959.

Hyman loved music and regularly attended performances of the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic. Her physical appearance had been altered by a bungled sinus operation in 1916, and to many she presented a brusque and formidable exterior, but she was not a recluse. She carried on a lively correspondence with scientists who sent her specimens or consulted her. She encouraged young scientists and contributed to charitable causes. She acquired a small, but valuable art collection, and made summer collecting trips to marine laboratories.

Hyman's recognition began with publication of her first invertebrate volume. The University of Chicago awarded her an honorary doctor of science degree in 1941, and honorary degrees followed from other colleges. She received the Daniel Giraud Elliot Medal of the National Academy of Sciences in 1951, the Gold Medal of the Linnaean Society of London in 1960, and the American Museum presented her with its Gold Medal for Distinguished Achievement in Science in April 1969, a few months before she died.

Hyman served as president of the Society of Systematic Zoology in 1959, and she edited the society's journal, Systematic Zoology, from 1959-1963. She was vice president of the American Society of Zoologists in 1953 and a member of the National Academy of Sciences, as well as Phi Beta Kappa, Sigma Xi, the American Microscopical Society, the American Society of Naturalists, the Marine Biological Laboratory of Woods Hole, the American Society of Limnology and Oceanography, and the Society of Protozoologists. In addition to her books, she published 135 scientific papers between 1916 and 1966. Her early papers represent contributions to Child's physiological projects; her taxonomic and anatomical papers began to appear in 1925.

In the last decade o Hyman's life, her health was poor and her work on invertebrates had become more difficult. In 1967, at the age of seventy-eight and suffering from Parkinson's disease, she published the sixth volume of her treatise. She announced in its preface that this would be the last volume of The Invertebrates from her hands, although McGraw-Hill intended to continue the series with different authors. "I now retire from the field," Hyman wrote, "satisfied that I have accomplished my original purpose— to stimulate the study of invertebrates." She died on August 3, 1969.


Further Reading on Libbie Henrietta Hyman

Hyman, Libbie H., and G. Evelyn Hutchinson, " Libbie Henrietta Hyman: December 6, 1888-August 3, 1969," in Biographical Memoirs, National Academy of Sciences, Volume 60, 1991, pp. 103-14.

Rossiter, Margaret W., Women Scientists in America: Struggles and Strategies to 1940, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982, pp. 210-11, 294, 373, 374.

Sicherman, Barbara, and Carol Hurd Green, editors, Notable American Women: The Modern Period, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1980, pp. 365-67.

Stunkard, Horace W., "In Memoriam: Libbie Henrietta Hyman, 1888-1969," in Biology of the Turbellaria, Riser, Nathan W., and M. Patricia Morse, editors, McGraw-Hill, 1974, pp. 9-13.

Winston, Judith E., "Great Invertebrate Zoologists: Libbie Henrietta Hyman (1888-1969)," in American Society of Zoologists, Division of Invertebrate Zoologists Newsletter, fall, 1991.