New Evidence on Dobzhansky 1936 “Jesup” lectures

Columbia Biological Series logo. One of five different logos used for the series.
This is part of the Columbia Biological Series. Modified CBS logo as it appears on Wilson (1896) and Osborn (1902 second edition). WILSON, E. B., 1896. The cell in development and inheritance. OSBORN, H. F., 1902. From the Greeks to Darwin: an outline of the development of the evolution idea. Second edition.

Who says nothing exciting ever happens in historical research? This letter reports on a recent important find regarding the population geneticist, Theodosius Dobzhansky, and his famous 1937 book, Genetics and the Origin of Species. Most historians assume (a) Dobzhansky (1937) began as a series of ‘Jesup lectures,’ sponsored by the Department of Zoology at Columbia University, in 1936, and (b) from the start of this project, Dobzhansky had been told he could produce a book for the Columbia Biological Series (CBS) (e.g., Provine 1994). In a forthcoming essay on the CBS and Jesup lectures, I claim these connections to the CBS and Jesup lectures came after, not before, Dobzhansky delivered his famous Columbia lectures in October and November 1936 (Cain in press). My thesis was that Dobzhansky gave his lectures and signed a book contract thinking this was to be a one-off text in evolutionary genetics. Afterward, his Columbia sponsors had the idea of reviving the CBS and Jesup lectures, then they back dated this revival to include Dobzhansky’s work.

This essay was published as Joe Cain. 2001. “New evidence on Dobzhansky’s 1936 ‘Jesup’ lectures” The Linnean 17 (3) 15-18. I have updated the citations. Also see my essay, “Co-opting Colleagues: Appropriating Dobzhansky’s 1936 Lectures at Columbia,” published in Journal of the History of Biology 35, 207-219 (2002). DOI 10.1023/A:1016008821530. This was published after the present item.

My evidence was rather thin: a letter dated 18 May 1937 from Leslie Clarence Dunn (Department of Zoology at Columbia University) to Dobzhansky. Written six months after Dobzhansky’s Columbia lectures — as Dunn was undertaking a final editorial check of Dobzhansky’s book manuscript — this letter shows Dunn presenting a plan as newly devised:

At a department staff meeting recently we discussed whether this [book manuscript] would not be a good beginning for the new Columbia Biological Series. This was a rather famous series in the old days, … It has been in abeyance for some twenty years or more, and I think it would be a good plan to revive it and put it on a modern basis. The Press will probably accept this. We hope also to get an annual lectureship established and to publish the lectures in this series each year. As Number One man in the series, whom would you suggest for future lecturers?[1]

This thesis about back dating contradicts a series of oral histories by participants, some institutional records at Columbia, and a great many statements by historians (myself included).[2] Cautious in setting this evidence against what seemed a solid conclusion to the contrary, I qualified my claim and suggested more evidence was needed to decide the issue one way or another.

I now can report that additional archives research verifies this back dating thesis and substantially clarifies the relevant chronology.

In May 1937, Dunn was reading Dobzhansky’s book manuscript before sending it to Columbia University Press. (Dobzhansky signed a contract with the Press in December 1936). It was at this time that he had the idea to revive the Columbia Biological Series book series and to link it with a revival of the Jesup lectures — both had been active several decades before but had not been produced since 1910. Dunn wrote Dobzhansky with this idea on 18 May 1937 in the letter excerpted above. A week later — probably after Dobzhansky agreed — Dunn wrote Columbia University president Nicholas Butler seeking permission to initiate his plan. To capture his rationale, this letter is quoted nearly in full:

The present members of the Department of Zoology are anxious to preserve and extend the notable tradition established by their predecessors in this department. The lectures given by Osborn, Wilson and Morgan and the leaders of biological thought who were invited to lecture at the University influenced not only those who heard them but, when published in the [CBS], they helped establish the reputation of the department and greatly extend the influence of the University. The series of books, which included … became famous not only because they described the actions on the advancing front of biological knowledge of the time, but also because they laid a sound scientific and philosophical basis for future work and thereby gained a longer life.

Biology has changed greatly since this series of books and lectures on which they were based were discontinued, and we feel that it is time to take stock of this progress and to begin a new series of lectures and books which will summarize the newer knowledge and its bearing on the fundamental problems of biology. We made a beginning in this direction last year when Professor Dobzhansky gave us a series of eight lectures on “Genetics and the Origin of Species.” These were very successful and attracted biologists from the American Museum, the Botanic Gardens and many neighboring institutions. The University Press is to publish this book, and we feel it would be very fitting to initiate with it a new Columbia Biological Series. It happens that the first book in the old series, by Osborn [1894], dealt with the historical aspects of evolution, then the dominant method of approach. The new book considers the same problems from the modern viewpoint of experimental analysis.

We propose, therefore, that a new series of lectureships be established, or that the Jessup [sic] Lectureship be reconstituted. The incumbent would be chosen from among those who have made significant contributions to modern biology. He should, however, also be able to summarize the status of some general problem in such a way as to be intelligible to students of biology generally. We propose that he be invited to give about six lectures, preferable in the autumn; that a fee be given which would be sufficient to cover his travel expenses, his expenses here and during preparation of the lectures, and that this be in lieu of royalties accruing to the Press after publication of the book. We should estimate that the amount required would average about eight hundred to one thousand dollars a year. The University would then own the manuscript and royalties above cost of publication would accrue to the lectureship fund.

Although the proposed lectureship would, it is hoped, embrace a wider field than zoology alone, administration would be simplified if nominations were to be made by the Department of Zoology after consultation with other interested departments in the Division of Biology. If this Division should gain some corporate unity, then nomination might come from the Division instead of from the Department.[3]

This letter shows conclusively that the CBS and Jesup lectures revivals were not in place until well after Dobzhansky’s Columbia lectures in October and November 1936. Rather than a one-off title, Genetics and the origin of species was set to become CBS volume 11 only in May 1937. First copies appeared in middle October 1937, and there is no reference to the Jesup lectures in the text. On seeing the first copies, Dobzhansky expressed his thanks to Dunn. “Frankly, I am greatly pleased with having this book out, and since it is due to you alone that it has been written and published, I feel that I owe you a large debt of gratitude.”[4]

This process of back dating may seem a trivial point. In fact, it forces historians to shift their understanding of the immediate origins of the CBS revival away from the American proponents of a synthetic theory of evolution and toward manoeuvres within the zoology department at Columbia University to assert its importance as managers and promoters of cutting edges in the life sciences. In other words, these revivals tell us far more about Dunn and his colleagues, than they do about Dobzhansky and other evolutionists. By implication, this new evidence provides another nail in the coffin of standard narratives about the synthesis period in evolutionary studies. In an extended discussion of this new data, now under review, I propose a detailed chronology and interpretative context for this point.


Joe Cain, FLS 2000.
Science and Technology Studies, University College London,
Gower Street, London, WC1E 6BT.


Cain J. in press. The Columbia Biological Series, 1894-1974: a bibliographic note. Archives of Natural History.

Added: Cain, Joe. 2001. The Columbia Biological Series, 1894-1974: a bibliographic note. Archives of Natural History 28: 353-366. DOI: 10.3366/anh.2001.28.3.353. (related bibliographical information and list of editorial board).

Dobzhansky TG. 1937. Genetics and the origin of species. New York: Columbia University Press.

Osborn HF. 1894. From the Greeks to Darwin: an outline of the development of the evolution idea. New York and London: Macmillan and Co.

Provine W. 1994. The origin of Dobzhansky’s Genetics and the origin of species. In: Adams, M. eds. The evolution of Theodosius Dobzhansky. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 99-114.


[1] Dunn to Dobzhansky 18 May 1937 in Dunn Papers, folder: “Dobzhansky 1936–1937”. Dunn Papers are deposited in the American Philosophical Society Library, Philadelphia, PA, USA.

[2] Oral histories from Dobzhansky and Dunn were produced by the Columbia Oral History Project. These are excerpted in Provine (1994). Institutional records (e.g., press releases for the Jesup lectures by Columbia University) are available in the Columbia University Archives, New York, NY, USA.

[3] Correspondence is 26 May 1937 Dunn to President Nicholas Murray Butler and reply 27 May 1937 Nicholas Murray Butler to Dunn in Dunn Papers, folder “Columbia University. Fakenthal, F. D. 1929–1945”. The language of this letter parallel’s Dunn’s preface to Dobzhansky (1937).

[4] 15 Oct 1937 Dobzhansky to Dunn in Dunn Papers, folder: “Dobzhansky 1936–1937”. Though pleased with the book, reportedly Dobzhansky was furious with the designer’s error on the spine. In this stylised depiction of the mitotic spindle, the designer reversed the orientation of the chromosomes (Cain in press).