Although he was the founding director in 1888 of a prominent marine biology laboratory that is still going strong today, is credited with bringing rigor to the scientific process in the United States and in Japan, and is considered a major pioneer in zoology, the scientist Charles Otis Whitman (1842-1910) has been largely forgotten by his alma mater, Bowdoin College.
Susan Wegner, associate professor of art history at Bowdoin, would like to rectify this. She says there’s no reason why Whitman, who earned his undergraduate degree in 1868, should not be memorialized like Bowdoin’s other great scientific achievers, such as Parker Cleveland, Donald MacMillan, Robert Peary or even Alfred Kinsey.
“Whitman is known as a major founder of modern biological study,” Wegner said. “He’s a really important scientific pioneer, and he should be better known. Some of [Bowdoin’s] biologists are his intellectual descendants.”
Whitman grew up in the countryside of Western Maine. His mother and father, both pacifists, forbade him from entering the Union Army. After graduating from Bowdoin, Whitman studied in Germany, receiving his PhD in 1878. Later he taught in Japan, where he introduced his Japanese students to the German model of systematic scientific inquiry.
Whitman went on to establish two biology programs at Clark University and University of Chicago at the turn of the 20th century. He was also the first director of Woods Hole Marine Biological Library in Massachusetts, which quickly became renowned as a site of cutting-edge research and debate. “Since this year is the 125th anniversary of the founding of the lab, now is the perfect time to reacquaint ourselves with Whitman’s achievements,” Wegner said.
An early biographer, Dr. Charles Davenport, wrote in 1917 that Whitman was a beloved figure at Woods Hole: “For he introduced and upheld ideals of cooperation and scientific democracy which led to its loyal and devoted support by a large body of the working biologists of the country.”
Whitman’s pedagogical approach was to “throw students into advanced research right away,” Wegner said. “He had a strong sense of collaboration.”
He demanded that his students bring structure to their scientific investigation, as he did. He was a careful observer of natural phenomena, and spent hours drawing the objects of his research, from leeches to birds, to better understand how they functioned. “He was doing what Leonardo did,” Wegner said. “He did superb drawings of complex biological structures.” Part of Whitman’s legacy is “the careful documentation of the visual record,” she added. “He used art as a scientific tool.”
Over his career, Whitman generated a trove of literature, photographs and drawings, some of which are quite beautiful. Particularly elegant are two illustrations by Japanese artists which Whitman commissioned for his publication on birds’ plumage patterns.
To help resuscitate Whitman’s reputation at Bowdoin, Wegner next year will collaborate with the George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections & Archives here to present an exhibition marking the centenary of the death of the last known passenger pigeon. This last bird, a female named Martha, was housed at the Cincinnati Zoo and had come from Whitman’s flocks, which he used to study their phylogeny and behavior.
Beyond this show, Wegner said she wished Bowdoin could also acquire some of Whitman’s artifacts, if possible. Richard Lindemann, director of the George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections & Archives at Bowdoin, mentioned that the library would be open to this. “It is something for further exploration,” he said.