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History of Evolution at Vanderbilt

This page is the home of the History of Evolution at Vanderbilt Project. Undergraduate students that have worked on this project include Neomi Chen, Nick McCoy, Sheila Chau, Dante Hernandez, Olivia Quiroga, Ashley Rogers, Kaitlyn Russell, Tara Stanley, Carly Stewart, and Chuyuan (Bill) Xu. Greyscale images below are from the Vanderbilt University Media Database (except George Gage whose military photo is in the public domain).

By: Nick McCoy, Evolutionary Studies undergraduate communications assistant

James Merrill Safford, born in Putnam, Ohio in 1822, was a pioneering geologist whose extensive contributions led to great strides in related fields over his 52-year career. Safford’s contributions to understanding Tennessee's geological and natural resources played a pivotal role in establishing Vanderbilt as the premier academic institution in the state. 

James Safford portrait, black and white. Safford is wearing a black suit and bowtie looking to his right.Safford's career began to take off during his time at Yale, where he conducted chemistry research through the “Silliman” lab in 1847. Benjamin Silliman founded the American Journal of Science and Arts in 1818. The journal's success revolutionized scientists' interactions and idea-sharing, with Silliman and the journal fostering cohesion and purpose among urban scientists, according to Baatz. This mindset became instilled in Safford’s approach to his work. By the end of his time at Yale, he earned a Ph. D. — one of the earliest doctorates in geology.  Safford left for the American South and began teaching at Cumberland University. From 1848-1873, Safford taught chemistry, mineralogy, and geology before moving to the growing city to teach chemistry at the joint University of Nashville Medical School and Vanderbilt University. During this time, Safford’s work in medicine and geology earned him an M.D. from the University of Nashville. 

As Vanderbilt opened in the fall of 1875, Safford was handpicked to co-chair the Natural History and Geology Department with Alexander Winchell. At the time, Safford’s respected reputation in Tennessee and impressive distinction as the only Vanderbilt professor to have obtained an M.D. and Ph.D bridged a gap between different spheres of scientific influence and inquiry between both men. Safford taught courses on lithological and economic geology, botany, and mineralogy. Winchell and Safford split paleontology into zoology and botany, with Safford teaching the latter. According to university records, from 1876 to 1878, Safford expanded his teaching responsibilities to include zoology, paleontology, lithology, historical and dynamical geology. Safford's tenure at Vanderbilt covered a broad spectrum, including post-graduate classes in specialized topics like blow-pipe analysis and field geological studies. During this period, Safford took on additional roles as Secretary of the Faculty and Professor of Chemistry. 

As the pair continued to co-chair the department, one of Winchell's publications, Adamites and Pre-Adamites, sparked backlash from both Vanderbilt and Southern Methodists due to the scientific assertions made that Black people were the original humans and the White majority evolved after. By 1879, Winchell had been released from the university. Safford was left in charge, and he became the living embodiment of Vanderbilt's School of Natural History and Geology. Safford continued to teach his core subjects of natural history, geology, and botany while adding courses on zoology, including general principles, classification of animals, and paleontological studies. Such classes utilized Nicholson's Textbook of Zoology and incorporated scientific views on evolution from the Manuals of Zoology and Paleontology. The latter discusses a theory of evolution rooted in the evolution of organic types, species emergence, morphological persistence, extinction, and the absence of transitional forms, all supported by paleontological evidence. Safford eventually became the Dean of the Pharmaceutical Department from 1885 to 1900, drawing on his experience teaching pharmaceutical courses and insight into natural resource production. 

A historical museum exhibit featuring a large fossilized skeleton of a prehistoric animal mounted vertically on a wooden support, with its ribcage and skull prominently displayed. In the foreground, there is a large tusk and skull of a mastodon. Multiple glass display cases filled with various fossils and geological specimens are arranged around the room. The room has tall windows with arched tops, a wooden ceiling with exposed beams, and framed pictures hanging on the walls.Elsewhere on campus, Safford worked on sourcing and cataloging artifacts for the University’s Museum, located in Science Hall. The Museum became the home of the Natural History collection and Cabinets of Geology. The Museum’s purpose was to use its archives for instructional purposes and prestige. According to course catalogs, the collection included fossil remains, a variety of Paleozoic forms, and mammalian and reptilian skeletons of impressive numbers. In addition, there was a large amount of minerals and rocks — an almost full collection of Dana’s System of Mineralogy, which included close to the total 352 mineral species categorized by chemical compounds. These artifacts were sources from Tennessee, nearby states, and even Europe. Safford's collection also found its way into the museum in the form of nickel and iron ore. 

But perhaps, Safford’s most enduring legacy lies in his commitment to fieldwork and exploration. Beyond the confines of the classroom, Safford devoted himself to cataloging geographical features underneath the “Nashville Dome.” This geological undertaking, initiated before the Civil War and completed in 1869, proved monumental in differentiating and classifying the three major geologic zones in Tennessee. Furthermore, Safford conducted extensive investigations into mineral deposits, particularly in the Wells Creek Basin in Cumberland, Tennessee, believed to be a meteor crater. From 1889-1891, he meticulously detailed the composition of these deposits. For example, one of Safford’s field notebooks depicts the location and presence of chert, Niagara marble, and Heldenberg rocks in one bluff wall. Collaborating with his student, W.T. Lander, Safford produced a manuscript titled Circumferential Faulting Around Wells Creek Basin, Houston, and Stewart Counties, Tennessee. These field expeditions not only imparted valuable methodologies to others in the field but also laid the foundation for scientists to unravel Earth's geologic history and understand the environmental factors shaping life over millions of years. 

Concurrently, amidst his teaching commitments, Safford shouldered significant responsibilities on the Board of Health. His multifaceted roles included membership on the Executive Committee and addressing issues with the water supply, the smoke nuisance, and topography. Moreover, he undertook the task of monitoring the sanitary conditions of the state penitentiary. He also was appointed Census Assistant to Prof. F. W. Hildegard, tasked with compiling a comprehensive report on cotton production in Tennessee. In 1888, Safford studied gas deposits and the efficacy of oil wells predicting their potential advantages for Nashville's future. During this tour, he and his team also discovered iron ore deposits and their utility similar to that of Sequatchie ore. Through this endeavor, Safford's insights extended beyond agriculture, illuminating the intricate connections between topographic changes, public health, water supply, and mineral resources. 

Geological map drawn by James Safford of the state of Tennessee

Upon reviewing historical records, the full extent of Safford’s influence became evident. Safford's influence extended far beyond the confines of Vanderbilt. His most notable works, The Resources of Tennessee and The Elementary Geology of Tennessee served as foundational texts for generations of students and researchers, while his tireless efforts as State Geologist, Board of Health member, and his Geographical Map of the State of Tennessee, Prepared with Reference to the Development of the Mineral & Agricultural Resources of the State for the Tennessee Centennial Exhibition in 1897, laid the groundwork for understanding Tennessee's topographical, mineral, and agricultural inner workings. So much so that a Nashville Banner article from 1895, summarized Professor Safford’s contributions as such, “He took hold of the state when nobody knew its resources.” 

In 1889, in an article for The American (now The Tennessean), researcher A.T. Ramp commended Safford's geological insights, advocating for better support for his work. Ramp highlighted Safford's expertise and emphasized the importance of adequately funding geological surveys for future progress. Safford’s legacy cemented the importance of geology in league with other scientific fields of the time. Such a legacy was found in two doctoral students in the field of geology — Paul McConnell Jones and Calvin Smith Brown — both of whom earned their degrees under Safford in 1892. Jones’s notable work, The Geology of Nashville, included a geological map of Nashville and connected thesis, which Safford supervised. 

Shortly after, on June 6th, 1900, Safford resigned from Vanderbilt University due to old age after teaching there for twenty-five years. Yet, his retirement was marked not by accolades but by the profound respect and admiration of his peers. Chancellor Kirkland praised Safford's contributions, citing his long-standing service, scientific eminence, teaching success, and admirable character, which earned him esteemed recognition among his fellow professors upon retirement. Notably, Safford became the final original Vanderbilt faculty member to resign in 1900, subsequently becoming the first professor to receive the honor of Professor Emeritus from Kirkland. 

In his final letter, sent on May 20th, 1905, Safford mentioned his list of publications and wrote, “If I live long enough and have the strength I expand to add to this. But I am not strong and may fall away any day.” By the time he died in 1907, Safford had completed 100 books, publications, and reports — all geared toward enriching the future generation of geologists. He was 84 years old.

By: Ashley Rogers, Evolutionary Studies research assistant

Alexander Winchell black and white photo with signature underneath

Alexander Winchell, also commonly referred to as the “Great American Geologist,” was a well renowned geologist in the late 19th century. Winchell was born on December 31, 1824 in North East, New York. He attended Wesleyan University and graduated in 1847. Also, in 1850, he earned a M.A. degree. He taught at various universities including in Selma, Alabama, at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Syracuse University, and Vanderbilt University. At the University of Michigan, he was initially a professor of Physics and Civil Engineering. He later switched to teaching Geology, Zoology, Botany and Paleontology and continued to teach these subjects at Syracuse and Vanderbilt.

Winchell was a Geology professor at Vanderbilt University from 1875 to 1878. He was heavily sought after by Bishop Holland McTyiere who was very familiar with Winchell’s reputation at other universities. After finally agreeing to teach at Vanderbilt, Winchell obtained the position of the Chair of Natural History and Geology alongside James M. Safford. Many of Winchell’s teachings were influenced by evolutionary thought and theories. Though his work was heavily influenced by evolutionary principles, he opposed Darwin’s theory of evolution by the means of natural selection. He believed that natural selection could only work as a mechanism to refine and make species better adapt to their environment as opposed to having the ability to create new species.

Theories of evolution at the time opposed those of the Southern Methodists; however, written records indicate Winchell was allowed to speak on the subject in his courses. It was not until Winchell wrote a booklet titled “Adamites and Pre-Adamites” that Winchell’s relationship with Southern Methodists at the time became tense. This booklet implied that Black people were the first on this Earth, the Pre-Adamites, and the white majority evolved after the Pre-Adamites were already established on Earth. At the time that this was written, Black people were viewed as inferior humans who were stripped of their humanity by the white majority. As a result, this booklet received a lot of backlash, as it implied that Black people paved the way for the white majority and were the first to establish life on Earth. It was also viewed in a negative light because it conflicted with the Biblical story and identity of Adam and Eve in the Bible, as argued by the Southern Methodist majority.

Consequently, after writing this booklet, Winchell was dismissed from Vanderbilt and his full responsibilities were transferred to his co-chair James Safford. Though Winchell created this booklet and was beloved by a lot of different universities at the time, he was not absent of racist beliefs and teachings. He commonly referred to Black people as people who “could not be held to the same standard as the white man” and described the ways in which Black people were “phenotypically inferior” to the white man. These views were accepted at Vanderbilt as they aligned with many of the ideals that the Southern Methodists of the time preached and were heavily ingrained in societal norms of the time. However, as soon as Winchell implied that Black people in some way were superior to the white majority (like, by evolving first), he was no longer in alignment with the Southern Methodists’ thought, and his science as well as reputation at Vanderbilt were at stake.

We wrote a short story with images from the VU Media Database and cartoons created in Magic Media AI. Check it out here!

From the Nashville American, July 2nd, 1899, the day after Dr. Jones drowned off the coast at Woods Hole.

Dr. Jones was an Alabamian by birth, the son of Col. John A. Jones, of the Confederate Army. He was born near Camden, Wilcox County, in 1867, and his early boyhood was spent near this town. His mother was Miss Mary Scott, of Tuscaloosa, a sister of Mrs. W. J. Vaughn and Mrs. R. K. Hargrove. When 16 years of age Dr. Jones come to Nashville to live with Dr. Vaughn, and two years later, in 1885, he entered Vanderbilt. As a student he was of indomitable energy, and when he graduated in 1889 his scholarship record was second only to that of Dr. Merriam, his bosom friend and companion, who was drowned several years ago in Lake Cayuga, near Cornell university. Dr. Jones took an active part in athletics in the university, and held several records in field sports for a number of years. He was a member of the Phi Delta Theta Fraternity.

After graduation, Dr. Jones continued his studies in the university, making a specialty in mineralogy and biology. He received his degree of M. S. in 1891 and was elected to sub-professor of mineralogy and biology at Vanderbilt, which position he held until last year, when he was elected adjunct professor of biology and lecturer on embryology in the medical department. In 1892 he took the degree of D. Sc. At the time of his death he was a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and of the Engineering Association of the South. He was also an assistant geologist in the United States Geological Survey from 1890 to 1891, and was connected with the Marine Biological Laboratory from 1891 to 1895.

While an indefatigable worker in the performance of his university duties Dr. Jones was an ardent patron of college athletics and devoted considerable time to the promotion of clean athletics. He has been Secretary of the Vanderbilt Athletic Association for a number of years and was also Secretary of the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association. He was of a quiet, companionable disposition and won friends in every work with which he was connected. he has been a leading spirit in the college life of Vanderbilt and was known more widely, perhaps, than any other man who was ever connected with the university. He was also well-known in Nashville, and was a general favorite in all circles in which he moved.

It is a remarkable coincidence that Dr. Jones should have met the same fate which befell his classmate and chum, Dr. Merriam. The latter’s sad end made a profound impression on him which he was never able to overcome. It was recalled by members of Dr. Vaughn’s family that just before his departure for Woods Hole Dr. Jones remarked half jocularly that if he should be drowned on the trip he had made all arrangements for the disposition of his effects. The premonition, though indirectly expressed, showed the trend of his mind on the subject.

At Woods Hole, where Dr. Jones was drowned, there is located a United States marine biological station, and for two summers past he has been attending the summer school conducted there by Dr. C. A. Whitman, of Chicago University. As Dr. Jones was a man of fine physique and a good swimmer it is presumed that he was seized with a cramp and so drowned.

Besides the legion of friends who will mourn his untimely end, Dr. Jones leaves a mother, who lives at Asheville, N.C., and four brothers, including E.S. Jones, who graduated at Vanderbilt last month, and Herbert Jones, who is still a student at Vanderbilt.

By: Kaitlyn Russell, Library Buchanan Fellow

Leonidas C. Early Life
Dr. Leonidas “L.C.” Chalmers Glenn was born in North Carolina on September 9 th , 1871. He earned his bachelor's degree at the University of South Carolina in 1889 and he went on to be the superintendent of grade schools in South Carolina while earning his Ph.D. in geology at Johns Hopkins University. In 1896 he took on advanced work in stratigraphy and paleontology of the Tertiary deposits of the Atlantic Coastal Plain, which earned him his Ph.D. in 1899.

Glenn joined Vanderbilt as an assistant professor in geology in 1900 and became chair of the department in 1903. In 1900, he married Nellie Louise McCullough and the pair had two sons. At Vanderbilt he was the lone geology faculty member for 22 years. He would go on to teach General Geology, Mineralogy, Economic Geology regularly while teaching Invertebrate Paleontology, Advanced Paleontology, and Optical Mineralogy and Petrology occasionally. In 1912, Tennessee was one of the first states to maintain any considerable geological survey due to the work of Dr. Glenn. He went on to publish numerous papers such as The Growth of Our Knowledge of Tennessee Geology in 1912. It was the first comprehensive work of its time for geology in Tennessee. The paper gives the history of all the geology work that has been conducted in Tennessee up to 1910. In 1910 Dr. Glenn also conducted and wrote a paper on the deconstruction of South Carolina forests and in 1904 his work on Miocene pelecypods for his Ph.D. was published by Maryland Geological Society. He published many papers on water resources in Tennessee and coal deposits. In total Glenn published 49 papers, 35 of which were printed before 1918. He was a founder of the Tennessee Academy of Science and served as its president on three occasions. He also served a short time as the Tennessee state geologist. He did field work in geology for the states of Kentucky, North Carolina, and Tennessee along with the United States Geological Survey and the United States Forest Service, including working on coal steams. One place that he investigated was the Appalachian Mountains which showed great erosion. In 1926 he published the geology of the proposed Great Smoky Mountain National Park and due to his extensive knowledge of erosive processes and steam dynamics he was hired in 1919 as an expert witness for the United States Justice Department on the Red River boundary dispute between Texas and Oklamahma. The dispute went to the Supreme Court in 1921. In 1923 Physiography was introduced, which became his largest and primary class. In his later career his teaching loads were heavy, including teaching cadets geography during World War II.

Museum and Other Organizations
He was instrumental in founding organizations such as the Tennessee Academy of Science in 1912 and the Vanderbilt Scientific Research Society and was one of the first presidents. In 1925, Glenn and his colleagues at Tennessee Academy of Science were in support of John Scopes in the Scopes v. Tennessee trial and took a public stand against the Anti-Evolution Act. He was chairman of numerous committees, including the Library Committees, Athletic Committee, Peabody Affiliation Committee, and the Heath Services Committee. In 1935 he was a member of the Board of Consultants of Tennessee Valley Authority. Some other organizations he was a part of include, being the chairman of the boys work department for the Y.M.C.A. and a member at the Old Oak Club. He was also the representative of Vanderbilt in the Tennessee College Association, and the official curator of the museum at Vanderbily. Glenn made enormous contributions to the museum. He added several mastodon bones from and arranged one of the large contributions to Vanderbilt from Gates Phillaps Thurston, who gave the museum Native American artifacts, gems, and minerals. Some artifacts came from the ruins of Pompeii, amongst other places.

Glenn retired at 70 years old in 1942, but still continued to come into the department spending his time on collections, especially the Thruston collection for the museum. He worked at Vanderbilt for 42 years. The Alumnus published an article stating that it was one of the greatest and largest geology libraries in the South. At 79, Glenn died in January of 1951.

By: Bill Xu, Library Buchanan Fellow

Willard Jewell looking up from his desk with a map behind him, greyscale.Willard Brownell Jewell was born in Little Compton, Rhode Island on April 4, 1899. He graduated from Mount Harmon School for Boys in 1918. He served as a seaman in U.S. Navy from September to December in 1918 and Ships Carpenter in U.S. Merchant Marine from February to August in 1919.

He finished his degree at Brown University in 1923. A few days before his graduation from Brown, he was told about an opening in the geological field, so he went to Canada and became a geologist. Jewell finished his Ph.D. at Princeton University in 1925.

After his graduation, he moved to Vanderbilt to become an assistant professor. He was promoted to associate professor in 1938. He also worked as a visiting professor of geology at Colorado College in the summer of 1935, and director of the Vanderbilt Summer Field Trip in Geology in 1929, 1930, and 1936. He remained at Vanderbilt, where he was promoted to full professor and chairman of the Department of Geology in 1942. He eventually became dean of the Geology department.

Jewell focused his research on the mineral deposits and geology of Alaska, British Columbia, Tennessee, and Newfoundland. During World War II, he volunteered to learn meteorology so that he could teach the subject to cadets in the Army, according to Professor Emeritus Leonard Alberstadt. Jewell died in 1969.

By: Carly Stewart, Library Buchanan Fellow

Claude in a suit and tie with a chalkboard behind him helping a studentDr. Claude S. Chadwick was born in 1907 and is originally from Carthage, Texas. He received a B.S. degree from Centenary College in Louisiana, and an M.S. degree at Vanderbilt University. After graduating, he spent some time working at the University of Michigan, before joining the Vanderbilt biology department in 1927 as a teaching fellow and instructor while he worked toward his Ph.D. under Dr. Edward Reinke. He became an assistant professor in 1939. He was subsequently sworn in as a lieutenant in the US Naval Reserve in 1944, serving on the SS Thomas during World War II. Upon his return to Vanderbilt in 1946, he became an associate professor, and a full professor at Peabody College in 1951. In 1963, he left for Emory and Henry College.

Chadwick researched hormones using newts as a model organism, studying aspects such as their life cycle. He published at least four scientific articles while at Vanderbilt. One of his experiments, which determined that the pituitary gland is responsible for a newt’s impulse to seek water, was featured in Time Magazine in 1940. Chadwick was a member of professional organizations including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Society for Experimental Biology and Medicine, the Association of Southeastern Biologists, and the Tennessee Academy of Science. He gave a variety of lectures, including “Man, the Becoming Species,” “Time’s Arrow and the Genes,” and “In His Image,” the latter of which was likely part of a church speaker series titled the Lenten Forum Series.

He also presented a lecture during the series “Great Human Issues of our Times” in 1953. The lecture series was reportedly the first integrated event at Peabody College. However, his beliefs on race were complicated, as he also made uncomfortable remarks about overpopulation in the Nashville Banner. In 1961, he wrote that while he believed the US could support a population up to one billion people, China and India were overcrowded. He also stated that birth control was not the answer, and that modern sanitation prevented the natural order of biology whereby certain conditions and mutations were not meant for survival. By 2026, he said, the world’s population “will be approaching infinity” with too many people being “of the yellow race.” Thus, though Chadwick was a supporter of integration at Peabody, it seems that his views were complicated and still reflected an uncomfortable view of other cultures.

Outside of his scientific career, Chadwick had a rich personal life. He was involved in campus life at Vanderbilt, heading the Camera Club unit of the Vanderbilt Outdoor Club as well as the Vanderbilt University square dance team. He even directed the Vanderbilt Pre-Med Club’s square-dancing team and wrote an illustrated book called “Let’s Square Dance.” He also judged several science fairs in his spare time, belonged to the West End Methodist Church, and was president of the Brotherhood Bible Class.

By: Dante Hernandez, Library Buchanan Fellow

George Gage military headshot. GreyscaleDr. George R. Gage was a professor of botany born on August 6, 1890, in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

He graduated Pennsylvania State College (now Pennsylvania State University) with a B.S. in 1914, an M.S. from Michigan State College (now Michigan State University) in 1915, and a Ph.D. from Cornell University in 1926, he served in the military during World War II in the Army Air Corps. After teaching at Michigan State College, Cornell University, and DePauw University, he joined Vanderbilt University in 1928. He died in his home of a heart attack on August 18, 1945.

Gage was a plant pathologist who worked on semiloose smut disease of oats for a considerable part of his career with published papers by the Agricultural Experiment Station at Cornell University. While at Vanderbilt, he was one of the few people concerned about the danger that Dutch Elm disease posed to the North American elm tree populations. He warned colleagues of the looming threat in a presentation to the Tennessee Academy of Science in 1934. In this presentation he discussed how the problem could be mitigated but that it would require money that the USDA did not have. Eventually, the disease would go on to wipe out 40 million trees across the North American continent.

Gage also helped found the Vanderbilt University herbarium collection in 1935 with Dr. Harold Bold. The Vanderbilt University collection housed 20,000 specimens before being sent to the Botanical Research Institute of Texas in 1996 for preservation. Currently, the collection is being digitized for use in botanical research across the world.

Gage was also an important advisor to the Vanderbilt Garden Club, students who were interested in learning more about plants and plant improvement. Before professional landscaping was done around the university, the garden club was in charge of all the plantings done on campus. He gave numerous talks to the members on a variety of topics, including the life cycle of pea plants and strategies for improving plant growth and yield.

Gage was also in charge of managing many of the trees during the summer. He spoke many times about how trees should be managed when they are damaged and when tree “surgery” is necessary. He was all around a supporter of ensuring trees are not cut down when possible.

A press release of George Gage's work if it were written today warning of Dutch elm disease - an outbreak that would eventually kill millions of Tennessee trees.

By: Olivia Quiroga, Buchanan Library Fellow

Elsie smiling on photo day in the 1940s. GreyscaleDr. Elsie Quarterman was a researcher, biologist, botanist, and professor at Vanderbilt University. She joined the Vanderbilt faculty in 1943, teaching during World War II. and eventually became the university’s first female academic department chair.

Born November 28, 1910, in Valdosta Georgia, Quarterman attended Valdosta High School and earned the A.B. degree in English from Georgia State Women’s College (now Valdosta State University). Quarterman earned her M.A. degree in botany at Duke University in 1941. She completed her Ph.D. under Dr. Henry Oosting in Duke’s botany department, where she focused on plant ecology and wrote her dissertation on the cedar glades of middle Tennessee. She remained close with her advisor throughout her years at Vanderbilt, often leaning on him for professional advice.

Oosting said of her in a letter of recommendation, “Dr. Quarterman is a dedicated and superior teacher. She speaks well under any circumstances, has given much thought to methods and objectives in modern beginning science courses, works conscientiously at improving her courses, and always has the student in mind. That she has attracted several graduate students to continue work with her is certainly indicative of her stimulating influence and the regard with which they hold her.”

She taught systematic botany, plant anatomy, and the year-long series in general botany. She would go on to develop her own plant ecology class and teach evolution as well.

Elsie in the field talking about plant conservation wearing a blue and green plaid shirt. Circa 2000After WW2 ended, the university sought to end the teaching responsibilities of many newly employed women. The chair of the department, however, fought to keep Quarterman on the faculty due to her outstanding botany teaching capabilities. Quarterman became the first woman to serve as an academic department chair at Vanderbilt University in General Biology in 1961. In a 1961 NSF application, she wrote, “the problem of evolution represents one of the great opportunities jointly facing taxonomy and ecology; accordingly, the program at Vanderbilt has been designed to utilize the appropriate concepts and methods of these two disciplines, and indeed any pertinent disciplines, as means of elucidating evolutionary problems.

Quarterman earned emeritus status in 1976 and died at the age of 103 on June 9, 2014.

The university featured her on as part of their sesquicentennial

By: Andy Flick, Evolutionary Studies scientific coordinator

Ilda McVeigh was a biologist at Vanderbilt University from 1948 until her retirement in 1968.

A press release of Ilda McVeigh's work from the 1950s with the late Charlie Joe Hobdy, a medical student at the time. They studied antibiotic resistance of Staphylococcus aureus.

By: Neomi Chen, Evolutionary Studies undergraduate communications assistant

Greyscale image of Ben Channell sitting in his office with a photo of an egret and a rotary phone in the background

Born on Independence Day in Gallman, Mississippi, Dr. Robert Ben Channell's academic accomplishments were nothing short of extraordinary. As a botanist, Channell's pioneering contributions to the field of evolution, particularly his taxonomic revision of the 'Eu-Rhynchospora' portion of the genus Rhynchospora and groundbreaking research on the genus Trillium, cemented his legacy. At Vanderbilt University, he tirelessly secured grants to enhance the educational experience for both undergraduate and graduate students, advocating for a diverse curriculum in General Biology. His tenure was marked by collaborative research projects, including a significant study on Trillium with Japanese botanists, which not only advanced scientific understanding but also strengthened international scientific cooperation.

Channell received hisB.S. degree in botany in 1947 and his M.S. degree in 1949 at Mississippi State College (now Mississippi State University). During his time there, he was also an instructor in botany from 1949 to 1951. Channell was a graduate assistant in the Department of Botany at Duke University, where he ultimately received his Ph.D. in 1955. He spent the next two years at Harvard University as a botanist on the staff of the Gray Herbarium–Arnold Arboretum.

A greyscale photo of the biology faculty standing around a tableChannell joined Vanderbilt in 1957 as an Assistant Professor of Biology. In 1963, he became the chairman of the newly established Department of General Biology and co-directed the Summer Institute of Evolution of Vascular Plants with his good friend and botanist Dr. Elsie Quarterman –– Vanderbilt’s “first female academic department chair.” Some classes Channell taught often had evolution themes such as ecological genetics, seminars in plant evolution, experimental taxonomy, biosystematics, and plant diversity.

During Channell’s time at Vanderbilt, he was also the director of 3 projects: 1) Vanderbilt’s Institute in Plant Evolution for college teachers of botany which the National Science Foundation (NSF) funded, 2) Vanderbilt’s graduate training program in plant evolution which was provided under the National Defense Education Act, and 3) a research project in which Vanderbilt botanists and Japanese botanists at Kyushu University made comparative studies of the evolutionary and migrational history of Trillium.

However, Channell’s most significant grant that he received from the NSF was titled “Cytotaxonomic and Biochemical Studies of the Origin, Distribution and Relationships of Species of Trillium (Liliaceae).” Through the use of staining to determine the chromosomes of the eastern North American Trillium individuals within and across species, Channell aimed to better understand the natural taxonomic units comprising this genus. He had originally intended for this research to last 2 years (July 1, 1963-July 1, 1965), but he requested an extension of 3 more years to July 1, 1968.

Various species of white, red, and pink Trillium. A three leafed flowerThe NSF explained their rationale behind funding Channell’s research in the following manner: “We feel that this project will not only permit important studies to be made which would not have been possible otherwise, but will also contribute substantially to the strengthening of cooperative endeavors in science between the United States and Japan.”

Due to pre-existing Japanese Trillium research that Channell relied on and referenced, there were political undertones to his work. In several of Channell’s proposals for extensions to the NSF, he often cited the U.S.-Japan Cooperation Program as the main reason why he should continue his research on Trillium. When Channell discovered that Mr. Yoshimichi Kozuka––a Japanese research associate in his lab with extensive knowledge of Trillium research––would have to leave the U.S. soon due to his visa expiration, Channell advocated for Kozuka’s stay and salary support. Similarly, Channell filed considerable paperwork to hire Mr. Masaaki Ihara from the National Institute of Genetics in Mishima, Japan as a research associate to gain his expertise in this subject matter.

In September 1973, Channell co-published a paper “Distribution and Evolutionary Significance of Chromosome Variation in Trillium ovatum” with Dr. Ichiro Fukuda of Tokyo Woman’s Christian College -- the first paper published in the journal Evolution from Vanderbilt University. The paper discussed the primary distributions of this genus in the Pacific coast region of western North America and the Rocky Mountain region as well as analyzed the chromosomal variation among Trillium species.

Channell’s collaborations with hisJapanese colleagues to further his research eventually were proven successful and effective; in 1996, Trillium channellii (Trilliaceae)––a new tetraploid species from eastern Hokkaido (northern Japan)––was chosen to honor Channell.

As Novon––a journal for botanical nomenclature––highlighted, Channell’s “interest in Trillium and support of research on taxonomy, cytogenetics, chemistry, and ecology of this genus during the early 1960s account (directly or indirectly) for much new information published about these plants since that time by us as well as many others. He challenged and encouraged those with whom he worked, often without receiving due credit for original ideas.”

A colorized photo of Ben Channell leaning over and Elsie Quarterman pointing at a plant in a plastic bubble.Channell’s selflessness and altruism permeated beyond his lab and to the greater Vanderbilt community. Because Channell also served on the Vanderbilt Planning Study’s Committee on Graduate and Postgraduate Studies, he applied for grants intended to improve undergraduate and graduate equipment for courses in General Biology. Channell argued that more consistent education on topics such as Embryology, Parasitology, Plant Physiology, and Cytology would provide an avenue for undergraduates to further explore these subjects in the research setting if they wished to pursue graduate studies. He also led many plant identification field trips and workshops at the Cheekwood Botanical Garden.

In a progress report to the NSF, Channell confidently stated that “the undergraduate program in biology at Vanderbilt has been markedly improved through the use of equipment purchased under this grant, and that, in general, the grant has had the intended results.”

In July 1973, Channell co-authored the paper “Fragrance Analyses of Trillium luteum and Trillium cuneatum (Liliaceae)” with his student James T. Murrell in the Journal of the Tennessee Academy of Science. The paper determined 12 different compounds responsible for the fragrances of the titular species using gas chromatography, a lab technique that separates different components of a mixture. The only compound whose identity was determined was terpene alcohol linalool, the major fragrance component of T. luteum responsible for its lemon-like odor. After receiving his Ph.D. at Vanderbilt, Murrell became a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Mississippi University for Women, and he continued researching various floral fragrances.

In 1977, Channell’s study titled “Perilla Ketone: A Potent Lung Toxin from the Mint Plant, Perilla frutescens Britton” was published in the journal Science. The researchers first synthesized the compound perilla ketone, an essential oil of the Asia-imported and “garden escapee.” Perilla frutescens––more commonly known in the U.S. as “purple mint plant,” “beefsteak plant,” “perilla mint,” and “perilla.” Then, after determining the specific toxic reactions and minimal lethal dose value of perilla ketone in lab mice, the researchers concluded that perilla ketone demonstrated lung toxicity for lab animals. Therefore, the researchers used this finding to explain the outbreaks of pulmonary emphysema among cattle and livestock that grazed the plant. The paper also analyzed the potential toxic hazards of Perilla frutescens when consumed and the health risks associated with humans eating primarily Asian cuisine or medicine containing perilla.

Another student Channell supervised was Robert L. Beckmann, Jr., who researched the genus Hydrophyllum L. (Hydrophyllaceae). Beckmann’s study published in American Journal of Botany called “Biosystematics of the Genus Hydrophyllum L. (Hydrophyllaceae)” analyzed the interrelationships of various Hydrophyllum species, a group of mesophytic herbs capable of growing in moderate temperatures and levels of moisture on the east and west coasts of North America. Beckmann continued research at North Carolina State University.

Channell also conducted research on the Buxaceae or the Boxwood family, which consists of monoecious evergreen shrubs, subshrubs, and rhizomatous herbs. In one section of his paper “The Buxaceae in the Southeastern United States” which was published in Journal of Arnold Arboretum, Channell suggested the possibility of phylogenic relationships among the Buxaceae, the Stylocerataceae, and the Didymeleaceae due to their close geographic presence to one another on the major continental land masses of the world. This study also analyzed the chemical components of a liquid wax derived from the seeds of Simmondsia chinesis, a long-lived, low shrub indigenous to the Sonoran Desert of California, Arizona, and northern Mexico. Because this wax is used in many cosmetics or substituted for other waxes such as beewax or spermaceti (sperm-whale oil), Channell concluded his paper by emphasizing the strong economic interest of Simmondsia. After the publication of this paper in 1987, one of Channell’s students Herbert C. Robbins studied the genus Pachysandra. After completing his studies at Vanderbilt, Robbins went on to teach at Belmont College (now Belmont University) and Baylor University. Robbins eventually became an Assistant Professor and Chairman of the Department of Biology at Kentucky Southern College.

Channell spent his time at Vanderbilt contributing to research and academia that was greater than himself. Even after his death on August 10, 2001, Channell left behind a legacy scholarship to students studying the sciences at his alma mater Copiah-Lincoln Community College.

By Sheila Chau, Library Buchanan Fellow

Mary smiling in a white shirt holding a clay bowlDr. Mary Voigt was a professor in Vanderbilt’s Anthropology department from 1971 to 1978. She was also a lecturer at University of Pennsylvania, Bryn Marw College, and College of William and Mary. She holds degrees from Marquette University (B.A. in History and English) and the University of Pennsylvania (Ph.D. in Anthropology).

At Vanderbilt, specifically, one of the main classes she taught was human evolution. Other interesting courses she taught at different institutions include human origins, the cells in archaeology and history, and seminars on problems in anthropological theory.

One of Voigt’s accomplishments was finding the Neolithic vino, the oldest bottle of wine on record. Voigt has done some archaeological work in Iran, and during exactions at Haji Firuz Tepe (northern Zagros Mountains near the city of Urmia, six wine bottles were discovered in what was thought to be the kitchen of a neolithic home. The wine bottles that were found were found to be roughly 7,000 to 7,400 years old. Voigt analyzed a yellowish residue on the pottery, and she found that the material had calcium tartrate and terebinth, a resin, from a tree.
Tartaric acid is often found in grapes. Voigt and her team found that the tartaric acid was converted into the calcium salt by interacting with soil. The finding of ancient retsina made the origins of wine 2,000 years earlier.

Voigt was passionate about archaeology, and she thought archaeology as pertinent to unearthing stories from the past. Each artifact that is found is not an isolated instrument. Rather, she thought of each artifact as something that was a part of a larger story.

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