Libbie Hymaan (1888-1969) was an American zoologist. Her family disapproved of her desire to pursue an academic career, but we all know if there’s one thing to inspire you to do something, it’s having your parents say not to do it.
“I never received any encouragement from my family to continue my academic career; in fact my determination to attend the University met with derision. At home, scolding and fault-finding were my daily portion”
Hyman wrote an incredibly successful textbook, A Laboratory Manual for Elementary Zoology (1919), which generated enough income that it allowed her to become an unpaid research assistant at the American Museum of Natural History. There, with no assistance, she accomplished a truly epic piece of work that has been of great use to zoologists since. She wrote and illustrated her six-volume treatise on The Invertebrates, a comprehensive work expertly analysing invertebrate animals. Unfortunately she never covered the entire topic due to ill health, but the first six volumes were an incredible accomplishment for an individual. As well as being the go-to source for invertebrates, Hyman also developed several important theories that had big impacts on modern biology (e.g. she argued, correctly, that echinoderms were more closely related to us chordates than the annelids etc they had often been grouped with).
Despite the incredible impact her work had, I don’t see her name that often. I’d like to give her a mention here on the blog as I’ve always found her workload, her accomplishments, and her background very interesting. I have a couple of quotes that hopefully get across her character, or what I believe her character to be, from everything I’ve read.
“I was brought up in a home devoid of affection and consideration. My father, an ageing 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.”
“By about 1930 I perceived that I could live on the royalties of my books. About this time, also, Professor Child came to the retiring age. Therefore I resigned my position as research assistant in the zoology department and have had no paid position since. I am amply supported by the royalties of my books, and so was left free to write a treatise on the invertebrates.”
– Libbie Hyman, Biographical Memoirs. National Academy of Science.