Conklin, Edwin Grant

Conklin, Edwin Grant (1863-1952), eminent biologist and teacher, came to Princeton from the University of Pennsylvania in 1908, at the invitation of President Woodrow Wilson, to become the first full-time head of the Department of Biology. Chairman for twenty-five years, he organized and guided the early development of the department; as lecturer in the introductory biology course, he inspired thousands of undergraduates; as investigator, he carried out fundamental research both in Guyot Hall and, in the summer, at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, on the embryonic development of eggs of marine animals. His strong interest in the philosophical implications of biology and particularly of evolution put him in great demand as a public speaker. At the end of his long life he estimated that he had given at least a thousand lectures before a wide variety of audiences, crusading for the acceptance of the concept of evolution.

He was born in Waldo, Ohio, the son of a busy ``horse and buggy doctor.'' Following his early education in rural schools he entered Ohio Wesleyan University. In great need of money, especially for the purchase of books, he dropped out for half of his third year to teach at a one-room school. In college he was active in debates and oratorical contests. His professor of natural history aroused his interest in collecting and identifying fossils and the shells of mussels and snails; he later asked Conklin to serve as assistant in the museum .

Conklin considered entering the ministry and was ordained as a lay preacher; but, needing money to pay off his debts after graduation, he took a position at Rust University in Mississippi, a missionary college for Negroes, where for three years he taught Latin, Greek, English, history, and all the sciences. He later said he was ``glad to have this opportunity for which I longed, to take part in a most necessary and humane work.'' However, his interest in biology became strong enough for him to choose it for his life work, and he left to enter graduate school at Johns Hopkins.

During the summer of 1890 Conklin was at Woods Hole searching for suitable material for a doctoral thesis in embryology. He chose the easily available eggs of a marine snail and discovered that following fertilization these eggs divide according to a fixed and striking pattern, which enabled him to follow individual cells and their descendants to their final location in the various organs of the larva. Through this ``cell lineage'' the origin of the larval structures could be traced back to different regions of the egg. In later years he successfully extended these studies to eggs of other marine animals and demonstrated that an undivided egg, far from being a homogeneous mass of protoplasm, possesses a remarkable degree of organization in its cytoplasm. He further refined his investigations through various experimental techniques, such as the isolation of cells, application of centrifigal force, and use of salt solutions. At a time when biologists tended to be overawed by the importance of the genes located in the nucleus, he elucidated the role of the cytoplasm of the egg in the early differentiation of the embryo, an essential but much neglected aspect of development.

Conklin's scholarly achievements were recognized by his election to the American Philosophical Society when he was only thirty-four; he was later its executive officer (1936-1942) and president (1942-1945 and 1948-1952), the only member ever elected twice to this high office -- the second time at the age of eighty-five. He was also a member of the National Academy of Sciences, president of several scientific societies, and a member of several foreign learned societies and academies.

A deeply religious man, Conklin was much concerned with the relations between science, ethics, and religion, a subject on which he wrote several books, published numerous magazine articles, and gave many speeches. Conklin believed that scientific evidence of man's animal ancestry need not undermine religious faith or belief in human dignity. ``The real dignity of man,'' he once wrote, ``consists not in his origin but in what he is and in what he may become.'' Perhaps the most conclusive statement of his point of view is found among the last words of his brief, posthumously published ``spiritual autobiography'': ``No one can furnish scientific proof of the existence or nature of a divine plan in the fulfillment of which men may cooperate, but it is evident that such an ideal lends strength and courage to mortal men.''

However great Conklin's scientific achievements were, his most enduring legacy may have been the personal influence he exerted on those who were fortunate enough to come into close contact with him. His contagious enthusiasm, his deep concern for others, his readiness to encourage and support young people have been decisive factors in many lives.

Gerhard Fankhauser


From Alexander Leitch, A Princeton Companion, copyright Princeton University Press (1978).

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