Science is a creature of lurches and inchings, presided over by two (mostly) mutually exclusive castes. We know the lurchers well, fictional mad scientists like Doc Brown or Jillian Holtzmann and real life ones like Richard Feynman who appear to open new paths of scientific inquiry by super human, almost reckless, intuition and inspiration. The inchers, though, the careful and meticulous sifters of knowledge, we have a harder time wrapping our collective imagination around, and so they tend to become the secret heroes of their disciplines, adored and adulated by their intellectual descendents, and almost totally unknown beyond their own special field. For those who make their life’s work the study of the world’s approximately one million three hundred thousand species of invertebrates, that secret hero has been, and perhaps will ever be, Libbie Hyman (1888-1969), whose 4000 page, six volume study of invertebrate life is, fifty years on, still a monument of the discipline.
That Hyman found her way to, and remained in, science, is a marvel of improbability considering her background. She was born in Des Moines, Iowa, to a Polish Jewish father whose village had lain under Russian control and therefore within the range of Russian anti-Semitic brutality, and a German mother who had been treated like a household slave by her brother. Her father loved learning but was a poor businessman and her mother, instead of learning from the experiences of her youth, internalized the hierarchical aggression that she had borne and returned it tenfold upon her daughter:
“I was brought up in a home devoid of affection and consideration. My father, an aging man constantly worried about his declining fortunes, took practically no notice of his four children. My mother regarded children as property to be ordered about as she liked and to be used for her benefit. She seemed incapable of feelings of affection. She was also thoroughly infiltrated with the European worship of the male sex. My three brothers were brought up in idleness and irresponsibility, with the result that two of them never earned more than a bare living, whereas I, as a mere child, was required to participate in the endless work of the big ten-room house. For this reason I have violently hated housework all my life.”
The need to cater to her mother’s demands and the idleness of her brothers remained a fact of existence for the first 43 years of Hyman’s life, during which her drive to educate herself as a scientist came under constant maternal and fraternal mockery. It was not until her mother finally died that Hyman escaped her domestic drudgery. The situation was similar to that of Caroline Herschel a century and a half before, but whereas Herschel had to wait until middle age to be rescued by her brother and begin her career, Libbie Hyman somehow managed to juggle both her mother’s demands and the increasing responsibilities of a career in science.
That career sprung from an early love of botany and nature that overcame systemic indifference to her talents during her formative years. Throughout school, nobody had told her that it was possible for a girl to go to college for science, so the possibility simply didn’t occur to her until towards the end of high school. After graduating, she took the unusual step of going back for a fifth year to pick up the science courses she hadn’t been encouraged to take with the idea of becoming a teacher. The schools she contacted, however, said that she was too young to possibly become a teacher, and so she took a job pasting labels on boxes for paltry pay.
She was one of the top students in her class, spoke French and German, and had a command of several branches of science, and yet, lacking direct encouragement from her elders, here she was, a box labeler, there to remain had it not been for a lucky accident. Walking down the street one day, she ran into her former German teacher, Mary Crawford, who inquired after what Hyman was doing now that she had graduated. Hyman told her story and Crawford, shocked that one of the school’s star pupils hadn’t even considered going to college, arranged a scholarship for her to attend the University of Chicago. And so, at last, Libbie Hyman was a college student.
She started off studying botany, but was flunked by a vindictive and toxic professor, an experience that caused her to transfer to the chemistry department where, however, she thought herself too far from the living creatures she loved, so she eventually settled on zoology and in particular the invertebrate studies of Professor C.M. Child. She spent her academic career as his assistant, studying flatworms, annelids, and hydra in an attempt to prove aspects of his unorthodox Axial Gradient theory, which attempted to show that quantitative metabolic differences along the major axis of an organism could account for qualitative differences in development. The lab work she did and the experience she gained in the gathering of that information soon made her not only the Western Hemisphere’s great authority on the varieties and characteristics of flatworms and deuterostomes, but also caused her to write A Laboratory Manual for Elementary Zoology in 1919, and A Laboratory Manual for Comparative Vertebrate Anatomy in 1922. Those became standard texts for medical and zoology students, and sales eventually allowed her the independence she needed to strike out on her own as a researcher.
Up to 1930, Libbie Hyman was familiar as the author of the clearest and best lab procedure manuals available in the English language, and as an expert on hydras and flatworms without peer, but the work that would win her the status of invertebrate zoology’s cherished secret hero could not begin until two great weights were lifted from her, as happened in quick succession. In 1930, Professor Child retired, freeing Hyman from the obligation she had felt to put the furtherance of his theories first among her priorities. Then, in 1931, her mother died, and suddenly Hyman realized that she could live anywhere, and do anything, that she wanted. Leaving behind her leeching siblings, she took a tour of Europe for fifteen months and, upon returning, moved to New York where she could access the resources of the American Museum of Natural History to produce her masterpiece: a multi volume treatise on the varieties of invertebrate life.
The Invertebrates was originally projected to be a two volume work, the first work of its type in the English language, and the first of its scale in any nation to be produced by a single individual instead of a research collective. A team of German researchers had created a seventy volume treatise but Hyman thought two would be sufficient to cover the most important categories and organisms of the field. Two volumes grew to three, grew to six, released from 1940 to 1967. Her publisher refused to pay for an illustrator and so Hyman had to produce her own figures, creating hundreds of drawings of the invertebrate world that have since become classics.
Modest to a fault, Hyman never claimed greatness for her monumental work, but rather referred to herself as a merely competent collector of data with a just barely sufficient ability to illustrate the tiny scale world she had spent a life studying. But as a scientist she had made contributions to determining the respiration rates and regenerative mechanisms of the lower life forms, as a lab worker and author she put her expertise at the disposal of an entire generation of students, as a taxonomist of under-studied species she was without rival, and as a multi lingual researcher with decades of experience in invertebrate studies, she was able to sift through two continents and as many centuries of scientific study and come out of it with a polished and concentrated account of the sprawling world of our invertebrate cousins.
For decades, she commuted to and from her beloved station in the Museum of Natural History, taking time out from her research only long enough to tend the garden she loved to distraction. Finally, however, the onset of Parkinson’s Disease forced her to put an end to her studies, and the last two years of her life were spent in steady decline, a sad end to a life that had begun in discouragement and clawed its way to the quiet triumph of work completed and freedom attained.
FURTHER READING: Libbie Hyman wrote a brief autobiographical sketch, which was published by the National Academy of Sciences and which includes a brief appreciation by Evelyn Hutchinson. Beyond that, she has a couple dozen pages devoted to her in Edna Yost’s indispensable 1943 American Women of Science. Copies of all six volumes of The Invertebrates are still decently easy to find, so get hunting!
Lead Photo: Portrait of Libbie Hyman, Public Domain