News and Notes

June 12, 2012

American Philosophical Society acquires Fitch Papers and Bonner Papers

The following collections have been acquired in 2011.  For access to these uncataloged collections, contact Charles Greifenstein, Curator of Archives & Manuscripts, .

Papers of biochemist and evolutionary biologist Walter M. Fitch (25 linear feet).

Walter Monroe Fitch (1929-2011) was born in San Diego.  He received both an AB in chemistry (1953) and a PhD in biochemistry (1958) from the University of California, Berkeley.  From 1962 until 1986 he was professor in the Physiological Chemistry Department at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, then, after a few years at the University of Southern California, became Distinguished Professor and Chair, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of California, Irvine in 1989.

In 1967, he and Emanuel Margoliash published their ground breaking paper in Science, “The Construction of Phylogenic Trees: A Generally Applicable Method Utilizing Estimates of the Mutation Distance Obtained from Cytochrome c Sequences.” A mitrochondrial protein, cytochrome c shows little change in its sequencing across species (is said to be “highly conserved”) and thus proves useful in studying speciation. 

In 1971 he developed the Fitch Parsimony Algorithm, designed to determine which possible phylogenic tree shows the least evolutionary change—that is, is the most parsimonious, and thus most likely the best tree constructable with the available data.  Perhaps most importantly, he, along with Masatoshi Nei, founded Molecular Biology and Evolution.  Fitch served as first editor-in-chief.  (The papers at the APS have relatively little directly about his ten years as editor.)

Fitch was also concerned with the spread of Creationism and its effect on the teaching of evolution.  Among his activities promoting science education were developing a class on creation and evolution at Irvine for undergraduates and as a member of the working group of the National Council for Science Education that produced Evolution, Science, and Society: Educating a New Generation (1998).  The title of his last work, The Three Failures of Creationism: Logic, Rhetoric, and Science, pithily sums up where he stood.  (The book was just published by University of California Press.)

Finally, Fitch investigated the construction of phylogenetic trees for the human influenza virus.  Fitch published a number of papers with others about the influenza virus, including “Predicting the Evolution of Human Influenza A” (Science,1999) and “Effects of Passage History and Sampling Bias in Phylogenetic Reconstruction of Human Influenza A Evolution” (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences U. S. A., 2000).

The papers consist of class work, research data, work on the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, work with the Centers for Disease Control, material covering campus life at Irvine, and about 4 linear feet of correspondence dating back to 1958, with other correspondence found throughout the collection.

Deposited at the APS thanks to the assistance of Walter Fitch’s friend and colleague Francisco Ayala and to the generosity of Prof. Fitch’s wife Chung Cha Ziesel-Fitch.

The papers of biologist John Tyler Bonner (59 linear feet).

John Tyler Bonner (b. 1920) is emeritus professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Princeton University, severing a total of 13 years as chairman of the department.  He is a pioneer in the use of cellular slime molds to understand evolution and biological development.  He received his PhD from Harvard in 1947.  In his thesis Bonner was the first to demonstrate that slime molds were attracted to a chemical called cyclic adenosine monophosphate.  Attraction to chemicals by organisms is called chemotaxis.  This behavior in slime molds as well as other aspects to their unusual life cycle has made slime molds important organisms for studying evolutionary biology.  Bonner has written over a dozen books, his writing noteworthy for its capacity to present complex ideas in clear prose.  In 2002 he published his autobiography, Lives of a Biologist.

The papers consist of correspondence, research notes, class work, video tape, and early school notebooks.  There a box with some of Bonner’s first stained slides of slime mold, done in 1942.

Donated to the APS by John Tyler Bonner.

Edward Cope’s Elasmosaurus, as published in the Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, after position of the head is corrected. Image courtesy of The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University.