George Evelyn Hutchinson / 20th Century ecologist

George Evelyn Hutchinson / 20th Century ecologist


In the 18th and 19th centuries, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Humboldt, Rumford and Goethe were simultaneously literati, scientists in several fields and men of affairs. By the late 19th century the volume of information had increased and specialization was rampant. In the 20th century there were few true intellectual polymaths. G. Evelyn Hutchinson’s intellectual breadth was that of a true polymath.

In newspaper articles of 1984 Hutchinson, then 81, was headlined as the ‘Father of Ecology’. He summarily dismissed that idea, saying that the title belonged to Charles Darwin, particularly in chapters three and four of The Origin of Species. He also recognized Charles Elton of Oxford as an important influence on his ideas. But W. Thomas Edmondson, well known among ecologists for the clean-up of lake Washington in Seattle, wrote about Hutchinson, “He invented modern ecology… Everything that is going on about ecology that is exciting can be traced back to ideas he had many years ago”.

No one person is the sole progenitor of a new field but Hutchinson had an important role in the establishment or modernization of several: limnology, biogeochemistry, paleoecology, radioecology, systems ecology and population ecology. He and his graduate students and post-doctoral students pioneered in these areas; many of these students of the Hutchinson ‘research school’ and their students are currently leaders in these fields.

There had been studies of the biology of lakes for centuries, but Hutchinson wrote the first major treatise in which the biology, chemistry and geology of lakes were considered extensively in the same work. He thereby essentially established modern limnology, the science of lakes, as an important field. He was the first to use radioactive phosphorus in a lake to demonstrate the rapid utilization of this vital element in natural waters and thus founded another important field, radioecology. Along with his students, particularly Edward Deevey, he pioneered the study of paleolimnology and paleoecology – providing an account of the history of lakes from an examination of the chemistry, and microfossils such as diatoms and pollen from cores taken on lake bottoms. Paleoecology is currently very important in the study of climate change.



‘Phylogenetic tree’ of the intellectual descendants of G.E. Hutchinson with doctoral degrees. Reprinted with permission from Edmondson (1971).

Hutchinson’s discoveries and interests branched out from their base in limnology to include an amazing breadth of subject matter. Through his examination of the co-occurrences of species in lakes, he focused attention on a problem that is central to all ecological theory: what determines the number of species to be found in a particular ecosystem? Or in the words of the title of one of Hutchinson’s most quoted papers, ‘Homage to Santa Rosalia, or Why Are There So Many Kinds of Animals?’ (Hutchinson,1959). Biodiversity and its preservation are current ecological concerns. In collaboration with his students, and particularly with Robert MacArthur, he developed the first comprehensive mathematical theory to explain species richness. The theory has been modified but arguably it would not have existed at all without Hutchinson.

He was the first to explore the ramifications of cybernetic theory for ecological systems, an exploration that grew out of his concern for what maintains the approximate stability of ecological systems. His studies of the cybernetic aspects of biogeochemistry were ancestral to the current activity under the heading of ‘Gaia’, with the critical difference that Hutchinson’s analyses were strictly mechanistic. Starting with the chemical transformations that occur in lake water and lake organisms he moved to global problems of biogeochemistry, editing a series of monographs for the American Museum of Natural History, based largely on his own research and that of several of his graduate students. Biogeochemistry as a field existed previously in Russia, particularly in the writings of Vernadsky; Hutchinson brought it west. He wrote a massive tome for this series on guano islands, partly based on Darwin-like worldwide correspondence, with the tongue-in-cheek title, The Biogeochemistry of Vertebrate Excretion (Hutchinson, 1950).

Lakes have always had connections with human culture. Frazer’s Golden Bough started with the story of the sacred king at Lake Nemi. Hutchinson was fascinated by lakes that had implications for archaeology and history, from Lake Huleh in Israel to Lake Petan in Guatemala to the lakes of Connecticut that carried in their sediments the record of European settlement. He also used historical material to elucidate biology – discovering aspects of the population genetics of butterflies from medieval heraldry. He published on insect taxonomy and genetics, jewelry from marine products, animals in medieval art and the zoogeography of African water bugs. From the latter he elucidated the pluvial history of the Sahara! In his vision all of these investigations were part of ‘ecology’. He wrote also on art history, philosophy, religion, anthropology and folklore. On ecology and on many of these other subjects he published essays, many collected as books, whose literary elegance ensures them a place in English literature.

Vivid recollections

Fortunately, many of his essays contain autobiographical material, there are many people with vivid recollections of him, and he saved a tremendous number of his letters and notes. In addition, in 1979 he published The Kindly Fruits of the Earth: Recollections of an Embryo Ecologist (Hutchinson, 1979), a partial autobiography or set of vignettes of his life up to approximately 1930. The cut-off date was chosen to avoid publishing opinions about living persons, even if they had figured prominently in his early life. For example there is no mention in it of his first wife Grace Pickford, his fellow zoology student at Cambridge, his early research partner in South Africa, and for many years his colleague at Yale.

He was acutely aware of having had an intellectually privileged start in life. His mother, Evaline Hutchinson, described by him as a ‘strong but strictly non-militant feminist’ was a forceful person of independent intellect. She upset her friends by writing a book entitled Creative Sex published in 1936; it recommended sex education, contraception and more humane divorce laws. For many years she sent references on postal cards of books and papers to be read by her Yale professor son. Evelyn’s father, Arthur Hutchinson was, during Evelyn’s boyhood, University demonstrator in mineralogy and science tutor at Pembroke College, Cambridge. Later he became Professor of Mineralogy and Master of Pembroke. His father’s interest in crystallography may have contributed to Evelyn’s assumption that logic and mathematics were absolutely basic to intellectual work. He later made the curious assertion that if one wanted to be a significant intellectual in Cambridge in the days of his youth “A feminist mother and an abstract-minded father were the ideal parents for boys, though it didn’t work so well for girls”. His younger sister, Dorothea Hutchinson, a Cambridge University graduate and former psychiatric social worker still living in Cambridge, did not fare so badly from this heritage.

But there were other powerful adult influences. A significant number of intellectual leaders of the time passed through the Hutchinsons’ home. Evelyn wrote, “Throughout the whole period of my childhood Cambridge was inhabited by genius, possibly more significant intellect per thousand inhabitants than any place has had before or since”. Many of these men and women seem to have been very tolerant of curious boys. As a child, Evelyn and his younger brother Leslie once turned off the dining room lights and locked in the guests at a dinner party of his parents; the guests were Sir George and Lady Darwin.

For his first few years he was educated at home along with his brother and sister; reading and literature were taught by his mother and arithmetic by his father. Before he was six he was sent for tutoring to a female neighbor and learned English poetry and classical mythology. He felt the classical heroes and gods were as much a part of his life as the characters in the Bible. From his uncle, Sir Arthur Shipley, a noted zoologist at Cambridge and Master of Christ’s College, he learned about the black rat, of which several mummified specimens were found in the Master’s Lodge, and its supposed displacement by the brown rat. This was significant for the history of bubonic plague and also for kindling Hutchinson’s concern with interspecific interactions. During this early period Evelyn set up his own aquaria with water mites and aquatic insects and watched their behavior.

At eight he was sent to Saint Faith’s, a private boys’ school in Cambridge. The curriculum included mathematics, Greek and Latin and more poetry. Here, Evelyn and several friends organized the Cambridge Junior Natural History Society for field collecting. He began collecting insects, fossils and bird skins. His father made him a killing bottle for butterflies but he soon considered butterflies and moths too commonplace and started to specialize in the true bugs, particularly the aquatic ones. He later did return to Lepidoptera, having come to understand that the patterns and colors on their wings ‘were an evolutionary text awaiting translation’.

As an adolescent he was sent to Gresham’s School, in Holt, Norfolk, a public school in the British sense. Shakespeare and theatrical activities were important there, and later it had W.H. Auden on the staff. Unlike most public schools it was strong in science and had an active Natural History Society. In one year Evelyn was the only student elected to all sections of this Society. Still extant Society records note that he delivered a talk in evolution which was ‘quite Lamarckian’! Hutchinson recalled that natural history was ‘more than tolerated’ but did not have the prestige of cricket, at which he did excel. While at Gresham at age 15, he published his first paper, about a swimming grasshopper. He also collected color morphs of spittle bugs, which he would examine again more than half a century later.

Before Hutchinson entered Cambridge as an undergraduate he knew much chemistry and physics and a great deal about insects. He had a passion for aquatic systems and a deep respect for intellectuality itself. Much of this was acquired by being left reasonably well alone to follow his own interest but with overall supervision by what seem to have been good friends and wise and loving adults. Among his friends and fellow insect collectors were two older sons of William Bateson. Sir Geoffrey Keynes (father of Lord Keynes) showed young Hutchinson his butterfly collection.

At Cambridge, Hutchinson was much more involved with individual study, field trips, discussion and club meetings with friends than with his experience in the classroom. Later he felt that a weakness of Yale education was the insistence on students attending classes.

The minutes of the Cambridge University Biological Tea Club, of which both he and Grace Pickford were founding members, record a contest at which Gregory Bateson, the future anthropologist, consumed a loaded cream bun without use of eating utensils in 85 seconds while Evelyn took 100 seconds. The Tea Club was also the site of serious student papers on subjects biological. Some courses he did take were from masters, among them J.B.S. Haldane, who was arguably the most intellectual of the initiators of the ‘modern synthesis’ in evolutionary theory.

Africa, Yale and India

He gained a double first at Cambridge, his only earned degree, and took his Rockefeller fellowship to the famous Naples seaside laboratory after graduation. His work on cephalopod hormones did not progress well, in part owing to the fact that octopi were in short supply and good to eat. He used the time to learn to love Italian civilization, particularly art and folklore, and returned repeatedly to Italy throughout his life. While at Naples he answered an advertisement for a position at Johannesburg’s University and was accepted, and took it against his parents’ advice. Professor H.B. Fantham was known to be impossibly difficult, but Africa was a whole new world to explore. Grace Pickford had received her BA and gone to South Africa as well on a Newham College Fellowship; they were married in Cape Town. She worked there on earthworms, and later became an expert on cephalopods and on hormonal physiology of fishes.

The University of Witwatersrand now possesses the Hutchinson Hall of Biology, named much later in his honor, but then Professor Fantham declared him an incompetent teacher and relieved him of teaching duties until his contract should expire. He and Grace Pickford used the time thus provided to do research on the dry lakes or pans of South Africa, including their geology, chemistry and biology: Hutchinson’s first serious study of comparative limnology. They published several papers together. During this period he was befriended by another important English polymath, Lancelot Hogben, then professor of Zoology at the University of Cape Town. Hogben advised him to apply for a fellowship at Yale to learn about experimental zoology from Yale’s renowned embryologist, Ross Granville Harrison.

The deadline for fellowships had already passed, but Hutchinson applied anyway, by transatlantic cable. His cable arrived at Yale in 1928 just as an instructorship became unexpectedly vacant in the Zoology Department. The arachnologist, Alexander Petrunkevitch, the last student of August Weissman and expert on the spiders embalmed in Baltic amber, supported his appointment and later his promotion. Yale was strongly class conscious at the time. Evelyn, in his first year an instructor was reminded at first of ‘intellectual Greek slaves educating their Roman masters’ as he saw the supposedly déclassé young instructors teaching aristocratic Yale undergraduates.

Hutchinson did not partake in experimental embryology but Ross Harrison nevertheless allowed him the freedom to do his own research and always supported him. In 1931 Harrison recommended Hutchinson’s appointment as the biologist on the Yale North India Expedition, organized and led by geologist Helmutt de Terra. Hutchinson spent most of 1932 in northern India, particularly in Ladakh, studying the chemistry and biology of high altitude lakes, some of the highest in the world. He collected everything from liverworts to water bugs to large mammals for the Peabody Museum at Yale. He was the only one on the expedition who could properly skin mammals, something he had learned as a Cambridge schoolboy. He was fascinated by the art and religion of India, and later wrote a successful book, The Clear Mirror (Hutchinson, 1936), based on his varied experiences in Ladakh.

He and Grace Pickford had agreed to divorce before the North Indian expedition. On the voyage home Hutchinson met Margaret Seal, who became his second wife. She was central to his life for almost the next half century, during which they shared a deep interest, not in science but in art, music and religion. After her death he married Anne Twitty Goldsby, a vivacious much younger black women and former biology teacher. She died prematurely in 1990.

After his return from India, Hutchinson began an essentially uninterrupted stream of teaching, research and writing that continued throughout his life. His many graduate students were of central importance to him. Evelyn and Yale became part of each other over the years. He was among the first scientists accepted into the Elizabethan Club, which was and is dedicated to drinking tea and discussing literature under the inspiration of a likeness of Queen Elizabeth and a folio edition of Shakespeare. Hutchinson himself was an inspiration to undergraduate members, one of whom, now a distinguished philosopher of science, recently remembered whole conversations he had had with Hutchinson over tea at the Elizabethan 50 years earlier.

References Cited

Edmondson, Y.H., ed. (1971) Celebratory Issue of Limnology and Oceanography, Some Components of the Hutchinson legend. Vol. 16, 157-163.

Hutchinson, G.E. (1936) The Clear Mirror, Cambridge University Press.

Hutchinson, G.E. (1950) The biogeochemistry of vertefrate excretion. Bull. Am. Mus. Nat. Hist. 96, 1-553, Plates 1-16.

Hutchinson, G.E. (1959) Homage to Santa Rosalia, or why are there so many kinds of animals? Am. Naturalist 93, 245-249.

Hutchinson, G.E. (1979) The Kindly Fruits of the Earth: Recollections of an Embryo Ecologist, Yale University Press.

Nancy G. Slack is completing a biography of G. Evelyn Hutchinson entitled: A Man so Various; G. Evelyn Hutchinson and the Invention of Modern Ecology.

This article is reprinted with permission from Endeavour, Vol. 23, No. 1, 1999, George Evelyn Hutchinson: 20th-century ecologist, Slobodkin and Slack, Elsevier Science.