Scientists, school teachers and social reformers throughout the twentieth century used high school biology to advance a wide range of idiosyncratic ideas – some progressive, most retrograde, many remarkably racist. If you thought biology was just frogs and DNA, you’ll be surprised by what we find when we crack open the textbooks and read deep.

 – 50 ESSAYS on 150 TEXTBOOKS –

Discovered! Ella Thea Smith’s First Textbook

Smith, Ella Thea. 1932(?). Biology: The Science of Life. Unpublished. Salem, Ohio: Salem Historical Society.

NOTE: Comparison of this typewritten biology textbook from 1932 to its contemporaries, and to Smith’s published version (Exploring Biology 1938), would be useful to anyone studying the history of the teaching of evolution, health, alcohol, eugenics and other key topics in biology.

Ella Thea Smith graduated in 1920 from the University of Chicago with a degree in Botany. She returned that year to her hometown of Salem, Ohio, where she would teach biology until her retirement in the early 1950s. Evidentially, Smith was so dissatisfied with the biology textbooks then approved for use in her district that she wrote her own.

Smith’s typewritten, mimeographed and string bound textbook, Biology: The Science of Life, was first used in classrooms in 1932, and was revised by Smith several times over the next few years. The copy offered here was discovered in 2007 misfiled under the title “workbook” at the Salem Historical Society. At the time, this was the only known copy. A second has since been located.

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The Science of Life by Ella Thea Smith

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Henry Fairfield Osborn and the Tragic Legacy of Piltdown Man

According to Henry Fairfield Osborn, Piltdown man, the famous fake [1], was proof that Darwin’s theory of natural selection was wrong, and that modern humans did not need trace their ancestry through Africa. To bolster his arguments, Osborn, who was president of the American Museum of Natural History from 1908 to 1935, turned the considerable resources of his institution toward the development of a wide range of compelling visual materials – reconstructions, painting, charts, graphs and photos – that illustrated his story of evolution. He then distributed these materials freely to textbook publishers and the popular press.

The consequences were tragic.

By flooding the market, Osborn, with sympathetic textbook authors and a socially conservative public as accomplices, advanced a racialized theory of evolution that resisted countervailing evidence for decades, survived Piltdown’s fall in 1953, and tainted the teaching of biology in high schools and colleges well into the 1970s.

This photo of the skull reconstructions of Java, Piltdown, Neanderthal, and Cro-Magnon men (as they were listed in the text) are from Ruth A. Dodge’s 1952 revision of the venerable Smallwood biology textbook series, which traced its history back to 1916. This would be the last textbook to picture Piltdown. Revealed as a fraud in 1953, and as you can see, neatly X-ed out with pencil by an anonymous student sometime after.

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Eugenics in High School and College Texts Graphed

Eugenics stopped being a topic of credible scientific inquiry in the United States around the time T. H. Morgan’s lab began publishing Drosophila-based genetic data in 1915, or at the latest, when the Carnegie Foundation began to pull funding from the Eugenic Records Office at Cold Spring Harbor in the later 1930s. But its legacy as part of the biology curriculum was much longer-lived than is commonly assumed.

The charts below track the relative priority of the topic of eugenics in the American biology curriculum based on direct examination of 83 high school biology textbooks and 43 college-level biology textbooks published in the United States between 1904 and 1973. (See database).

Tracing the history of the promotion of eugenics in American biology textbooks reveals several surprises.

First, despite the eugenic horror of World War II, the topic of eugenics remained a fixture of a majority of biology textbooks into the 1960s. Second, while the decade between 1925 and 1935 represented the peak of enthusiasm for eugenics in textbooks, this enthusiasm diminished only gradually over the following 30 years. Third, while a few high school textbook authors began to actively counter eugenic claims starting around 1938, college textbook authors continued to present eugenics without disclaimer. Lastly, no college textbook failed to mention eugenics from the mid-1940s on. Forgive the double negative, but what this means is that after World War II, college-level textbooks featured eugenics more routinely than they had in years prior.

Eugenics in High School Graph

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Where’d Hugo Go?

[NOTE: This post has been significantly revised – and improved – based on input from Jim Endersby, author of the Isis article referenced herein. The original post, along with Endersby’s comments and my reply, are attached as an addendum.]

Dutch botanist Hugo de Vries gained global fame in the first decades of the twentieth century for being the guy who finally figured out how evolution worked.

Darwin and De Vries

Opposing portraits of Charles Darwin and Hugo de Vries from the 1954 edition of Ella Thea Smith’s popular high school textbook, Exploring Biology.

Of course today we credit Darwin for this discovery, and backdate it to the publication of Origin of Species in 1859. But for many decades, into the 1930s in fact, Darwin’s theory of natural selection was considered insufficient (see Bowler, 1992). In the minds of many, De Vries’ idea completed the story of evolution.


Rather than suggesting that speciation resulted from an accumulation of small variations over long periods of time, like Darwin’s theory implied, De Vries posited that new species could actually pop into existence in a single generation. In fact, according to De Vries, multiple representatives of the same new species could pop simultaneously, creating a pool that would breed true.

Many biologists felt De Vries had solved the most vexing problem in evolution – how variations could avoid being swamped or blended back to average through interbreeding.

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Venus, Mars and Marston Bates

Most of us think of conservation and ecology as more or less the same thing, with conservation the first step toward the restoration of an ecologically balanced state of nature. But through the first half of the twentieth century, the two words signified quite different things.

In the teens, 20s and 30s, biology textbook authors positioned ecology as a minor sub-discipline of their field, and characterized it unflatteringly as a descriptive, womanly endeavor. As Edward Loranus Rice states in An Introduction to Biology (1935), “it would not be wide of the mark to define ecology as the domestic science, or home economics, of animals and plants” (p. 4).

Conservation on the other hand was progressive, manly.

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Samuel J. Holmes’ Library

Samuel J. Holmes was a respected professor of zoology at Berkeley from 1912 until his death in 1964. He was also, and remained throughout his life, an unapologetic eugenicist.

In fairness, life scientists who came of age in the zeros and teens were all steeped in eugenics, and many became fans and promoters. But Holmes, the compiler of A Bibliography of Eugenics (1924), was particularly enthusiastic.

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I Speak to You Through Electrical Language: Traveling Into the Nineteenth Century with the “Nervous Icon”

The image on page 401 of George W. Hunter’s 1907 Elements of Biology is strikingly out of place. It is a Greek bronze flattened to a black silhouette. A woodblock engraving in a textbook otherwise illustrated with halftone photographs. A relic of Renaissance anatomy covered by the soot of the Age of Steam. Yet there it stands, owning the page.

The Nervous Icon (as I’ve come to call the image) was a popular feature in biology textbooks into the 1950s. Picked up, rephotographed and copied with apparently little concern for image quality, artistry, copyright or context. It was treated poorly, just plopped in and barely referenced in the later texts in which it appeared.

But something told me there was a story here. I felt as if the Nervous Icon was a courier carrying a secret message from the past.

It turns out that tracing the history of this image – exploring when it was first cut, how it was reproduced, where it appeared, and why it remained popular even as similar classically styled illustrations were retired – reveals surprising connections between the seemingly disparate topics of printing technology, print piracy, electricity, telegraphy, spirituality, abolition, and that most central of nineteenth century anxieties, masturbation. The Nervous Icon’s secret is that, in its hyper-nakedness, it warned of the dangerous interconnectedness of the body, where stimulation, or over-stimulation, of any one part would cause damage to the entire system.

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Evolution of an Icon

The “Nervous Icon” has mesmerized me for nearly three years (see Parts I, II and III).

I first spotted the image in the early textbooks of George W. Hunter, including A Civic Biology (1914), famous as the central exhibit in the Scopes trial. It stood out because it gave off such a curiously anachronistic aura in Hunter’s otherwise proudly “modern” works. Once struck, I started seeing the thing everywhere. I found variations in at least eight competing twentieth century American high school textbooks. And moving back in time, I uncovered dozens of instances published in the century prior.

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The Nervous Icon – Part III

Above are variations of “The Nervous Icon,” an illustration that was copied, retouched, redrawn and reproduced in more than three dozen anatomy, physiology and biology textbooks published between 1845 and 1956. See the Nervous Icon database. Images 1, 2 and 3 digitized by Google. 4 and 5 scanned from the author’s personal collection.

“The Nervous Icon” is my name for an illustration of the human nervous system that found its way into dozens of anatomy, physiology and biology textbooks published between the mid-1800s and the mid-1900s. I began tracing its history in The Nervous Icon – Part I, where I touched on the issues of artistry, copyright, and mechanical reproduction in science textbooks. I followed up a month later in The Nervous Icon – Part II, where I went “over my head” into the history of encyclopedias and the tension caused by the conflict between the assumption that cultural artifacts were the property of the dominating imperialist power and the imperatives of the emerging global marketplace.

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Database Update: Eugenics in College Textbooks

Well, I just spent a fair portion of Thanksgiving morning updating the Textbook History database of Eugenics in College Biology Textbooks. In addition to correcting more than a few embarrassing misspellings and broken links, I’ve added commentary on two later editions of Biology by Claude A. Villee (1967 and 1972), the second edition of General Biology by Gairdner B. Moment (1950), and the first edition of Biology: A Full Spectrum (1973) by Gairdner B. Moment and Helen M. Habermann.

It remains striking how unwilling Harvard professor Villee was to give up on eugenics. Moment too, but Villee far more so. In the 1972 edition of Biology the author comes off as downright cranky about having to abandon the term. But though Villee finally dropped eugenics from the index and text, he didn’t abandon the idea entirely. Where the discussion of eugenics had been in his 1967 text, at the close of the chapter titled “Inheritance in Man,” the author simply substituted two modern sounding but not really so modern sub-sections – “Factors Changing Gene Frequencies: Differential Reproduction” and “Evolution: The Failure to Maintain Genetic Equilibrium” (718). Forget isolation or drift, for Villee, evolution, for better or for worse, was driven by that boogeyman of eugenics, “differential reproduction.” His citing of Earnest. A. Hooton, Carleton. S. Coon (786) and Franz Weidenreich (789) betrayed a continued affection for the concept of “racial development.”

For additional discussion on Villee, see The Eugenic Zombie in a Graveyard of Textbooks, specifically the article’s last section.

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