subscribe: Posts | Comments

Libbie Henrietta Hyman, evolution expert on marine animals, iconic iconoclast and likely victim of gender discrimination


by Len Bahr, Ph.D.

A book that inspired me in 1963 or so.

A WWII vintage book that inspired me in 1963 or so.

Long, long ago around 1962, as an undergraduate Zoology major at the University of Maryland, I became inspired by a mandatory two-semester course in comparative anatomy. Our class used a WWII vintage textbook entitled Comparative Vertebrate Anatomy by the noted zoologist Libbie Henrietta Hymanthen in her mid-seventies, who held a lifetime appointment at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

Here’s a brief blurb about Dr. Hyman from The Encyclopedia Brittanica:

Hyman received her Ph.D. degree from the University of Chicago (1915), where she had a research appointment (1916–31) under the distinguished zoologist Charles Manning Child. Much of her work during that period was on flatworms (my emphasis). She held an honorary research appointment (1937–69) to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City until her death.

Libby Henrietta Hyman (1888-1969) From Encyclopedia Brittanica

Libbie Henrietta Hyman (1888-1969) From Encyclopedia Brittanica

I thought of Dr. Hyman recently, while reading an article on a potential climate change-induced jellyfish apocalypse by Rebecca Biggs, published in the January/February 2018 issue of The Atlantic. Back in the day Libbie Hyman was unflatteringly described as a spinster scientist with a famously gruff demeanor, whose office was located in a remote corner of the museum basement, far from her co-workers. Given the current revelations about blatant gender discrimination on both women in general and professional women in particular, I wonder how much of the malicious gossip about Hyman was misogynistic at heart. We’ll never know of course but put me down as a staunch Libbie Hyman fan and defender.

Thanks to Ms. Hyman’s textbook* and to George Ramm, my comparative anatomy professor, I became particularly intrigued by the evolutionary branch of the Kingdom Animalia that includes spineless forms like flatworms, mollusks, and annelids, as well as our vertebral ancestors. This branch of the tree of life includes animal groups that made the ancient transition from radial to bilateral symmetry after flatworms diverged from their radial cousins such as sessile hydras, anemones, coralline polyps and and free floating jellyfish.

Radial symmetry connotes a backless and frontless anatomy. Medusoid jellyfish are bell-shaped, like a tennis ball sliced in half, with dorsal and ventral sides but lacking frontal, distal, and lateral facies. Echinoderms, such as starfish and brittle stars are based on a more complicated pentaradial symmetry combining both radial and bilateral stages, as described in this quote from Wikipedia:

Although adult echinoderms possess pentaradial, or five-sided, symmetry, echinoderm larvae are ciliated, free-swimming organisms that organize in bilateral symmetry which makes them look like embryonic chordates. Later, the left side of the body grows at the expense of the right side, which is eventually absorbed..

Bilaterally symmetrical architecture can be compared to a small boat with a bow, stern, port and starboard sides, a bottom and a deck. This basic configuration is common to all modern animal species, including people, that diverged from a common ancestor during the Cambrian explosion, some 4-5 hundred million years ago (as described in Libbie Hyman’s textbook).

Returning to my undergrad days, my fellow zoology majors were dominated by highly competitive, grade-obsessed pre-med students who were not enthralled like me by the exciting concepts that caught my more laid back attention. While I became mesmerized by the exciting narrative described by our voluble professor, my classmates memorized jargon from lecture notes to be regurgitated later during exams. In those ancient days before digital recording devices Dr. Ramm lectured at a furious pace, drawing blackboard diagrams with both hands while lecturing. How he kept chalk dust away from his impeccable dark suits was a classroom mystery. I listened more than I scribbled, culminating in my C level exam performance, while my pre-med counterparts earned A’s. On the other hand, my lifetime experience with the medical profession informs my conviction that most MDs lack the holistic perspective about non-human forms of life that still excites me.

Dr. Ramm later became my faculty advisor, which culminated in a sole soul meeting prior to my graduation in 1963 with a B.S. and a 2.0 GPA. He told me that my only feasible path to a professional career in science would be to find employment as a lab assistant before applying to grad school. Sure enough, before graduating I landed a life-changing entry-level job in estuarine ecology, thanks largely to a supporting letter from then Assistant Professor Raymond G. Stross,** the token representative of the then-emerging field of ecology in the staid, taxonomically-oriented zoology faculty at Maryland.

Thus, after my June graduation in the politically explosive Summer of 1963, I found myself working as an oyster research assistant at the Chesapeake Biological Lab (CBL) run by my alma mater on Solomon’s Island, Maryland. I spent the subsequent three years at CBL working under the gentle mentorship of Francis G. Beaven, a well known oyster biologist, who allowed me to study anything related to the American oyster Crassostrea Virginia Gmelin, an estuarine keystone species that ranges from Brazil to Nova Scotia. Among other topics that caught my fancy back then was an apparent functional relationship between the oyster and a small flatworm known as Stylocus ellipticus, on which I still lay claim to having outed as a predator of young oysters. Speaking of predation on the young, please forgive me for flashing on ‘Judge’ Roy Moore, up for election tomorrow (December 12) to the U.S. Senate for Alabama.

My favorite hangout in good weather during working hours at the lab was spent in tee shirt and cutoffs wading in chest-deep water surrounding a CBL pier at the mouth of the Patuxent River. That’s where I hung my trays of experimental oysters and it was there that I experienced first hand one aspect of the evolutionary change from radial to bilateral symmetry, which influenced the behavior of two predatory species that I encountered along with my oysters on a daily basis.

The radial species was the bell-shaped jellyfish Chrysaora quincacirra, unpopularly known locally as the sea nettle. This animal occasionally brushed against my exposed legs, stinging me with tiny cells known as nematocysts. The bilateral species was the aforementioned Stylochus ellipticus, an innocuous looking inch-long creature that I found among the oysters in my holding trays and that I suspected to be preying on oyster juveniles called spat.

After my suspicions were aroused I began to spend hours inside the lab spying on the interactions between the worm and the oyster. I forced these two ecosystem cohabitants to share the limited volume in small seawater filled glass bowls, each containing a single oyster spat and a flatworm. That’s how I watched numerous incidents during which a flatworm would approach a spat apparently feeding blissfully (pumping and filtering the ambient seawater) with its shells slightly agape and mantle edges visible. The flatworm would typically approach and crawl over the hapless oyster, which would snap its valves shut to the defensive position. Eventually, over perhaps an hour, the oyster spat would appear to give up and its valves would open wide as though its adductor muscle had become either fatigued or paralyzed by a worm-generated toxin. At this point I would observe the flatworm crawling inside the hapless mollusc and proceeding to ingest the oyster’s soft living tissue via the worm’s ventral ‘mouth.’

Now my tale returns to Libbie Hyman. Knowing that she was an authority on flatworms I wrote to her in care of the American Museum of Natural History, describing my observations about apparent flatworm/oyster predation. I never expected to hear back but eventually I received a hand-written letter with the shaky penmanship characteristic of many elderly writers suffering from what used to be called palsy. I was very touched by her kind but dubious comments that expressed a polite disagreement with my hypothesis. I left CBL not long after to matriculate in a masters program at the University of Richmond, without attempting to complete and publish my purely anecdotal observations. Now I wish that I could recover and frame her letter.

Len Bahr's former residence at 141 W. Washington St. in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Len Bahr’s former residence at 141 W. Washington St. in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

*My personal copy of this textbook is presumably moldering in the attic of my former residence, a Victorian residence located at 141 W. Washington St, in Baton Rouge. When I sold the house I left in its attic as cockroach fodder boxes of miscellaneous papers, books — and my letter from Dr. Hyman, all of which reminded me bitterly of my once budding career as an academic estuarine ecologist in the former Center for Wetland Resources at LSU. During the year 1984, George Orwell’s famous book title, the Ol’ War Skule pulled the plug on my non-tenured appointment as an associate professor. This decision was likely triggered by the economic repercussions of a global collapse in oil prices — as well as my politically incorrect opinions about oil and gas impacts on America’s Delta.

**Google helped me to rediscover the work of Raymond G. Stross (Ph.D. 1958) whose research on the ubiquitous freshwater crustacean known as the water flea (Daphnia spp.) was the first to estimate turnover times in wild water flea populations. As recently as 2011 he published research from a position at the Department of Biological Sciences at the State University of New York at Albany

Be Sociable, Share!
  1. I always thought Legos were component you combine to create something.. what does she snap her “business card” to?

  2. A comment on evolution. I try to comprehend the assumption that flesh and blood was created by molten rock/nothing but my mind can’t comprehend that. The time variable seems to say that anything can happen if given time. I lean to the creationism scenario because it to is based on a nothing beginning.

    • Anonymous-
      That’s an honest comment but I must ask you who or what do you believe created the creator? Creationists, like our former Governor Jindal, profess to believe that a supremely intelligent being appeared somehow mysteriously possessing the foresight to design all life forms, from anerobic prokaryotes to dinosaurs to Donald Trump’s family, allowing these creatures to anticipate future environmental conditions so as to be able to cope with them. I’m not sure how the extinction of most members of the tree of life are dealt with by folks with your faith.

  3. Thomas Whelan says:

    What a great article and I can relate to your journey. I loved all science and especially field sciences so I merged my passion for chemistry with oceanography so that I could get both of my loves in one discipline.

    I wonder if we have a sub-species of C. Virginica in South Bay, Lower Laguna Madre? No freshwater source for these guys – but they seem to make it every year.

    If Roy Moore is elected, I will puke.

    Just listened to Ray Wiley Hubbard’s album “The Ruffian’s Misfortune” again and thought of you. Keep up the great work. Tom

    • Tom-
      Thanks for your kind words and we’re both happy about Roy Moore’s defeat!
      The answer to your question about oysters in Laguna Madre is all about salinity. Among its other characteristics, and one reason for its widespread distribution, is that this animal can happily tolerate a wide range of salinity from about 5 ppt to the saltiness of full seawater (35 ppt). On the other hand, the primary oyster predators are snails known as oyster drills that are limited to salinities over about 20 ppt. Perhaps oyster drills aren’t abundant in the Laguna Madre.

      • Maurice Fox says:

        I ttok a quick look at Wikipedia. It says that the lower part of Laguna Madre can reach salinity of 45 ppt, as compared to 35 for seawater average. As for oyster drills, shells of those are common on the Gulf sides of the barrier islands. I don’t know about the Laguna side.
        Wikipedia’s description of the water process of L. M. is just what I described over the phone. Water flows in, then evaporates. No significant fresh water input because there are no large rivers feeding it.

  4. Rodolfo Novelo says:

    Dear Len,

    Thank you so much for sharing these memories. While studying at UNAM around 1974, we had only a couple of Hyman´s book available for approx. 450 Biology students in our library!! So, I could read some parts only in Xerox copies, but in so low quality that they usually turned blurred after a while.

  5. Maurice Fox says:

    Interesting story. Thanks for telling us about her.

    (Disclaimer: Len is my brother-in-law)

    • I’m proud to have elicited comments from both of my current brothers-in-law, Rodolfo Novelo in his native country of Mexico and Maurice J. Fox in his native state of Texas (once a part of Mexico).

  6. DON BLANCHER says:


    I too used the same Hyman’s book for comparative anatomy at UNO in the late 60’s and likewise, my copy has been lost in my moves.

    • Don-
      Not surprisingly I’m informed that much of the phylogenetic ‘gospel’ contained in Hyman’s text has been corrected during recent decades, on the basis of DNA sequencing made possible only since Watson and Crick cracked open the door to this field in 1953. Using anatomical evidence to derive ancestral relationships among the branches and twigs of the tree of life has sadly become outmoded. I wonder whether Hyman could see this coming before she passed away in 1969.

Leave a Reply