Libbie Hyman

Libbie Hyman bigraphy, stories - Zoologists

Libbie Hyman : biography

December 6, 1888 – August 3, 1969

Libbie Henrietta Hyman (December 6, 1888 – August 3, 1969), was an American zoologist.


Born in Des Moines, Iowa, she was the daughter of Joseph Hyman and Sabina Neumann. Hyman’s father, a Polish/Russian Jew, adopted the surname when he immigrated to the United States as a youth. He successively owned clothing stores in Des Moines, in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and in Fort Dodge, Iowa, but the family’s resources were limited. Hyman attended public schools in Fort Dodge. At home she was required to do much of the housework. She enjoyed reading, especially books by Charles Dickens in her father’s small den, and she took a strong interest in flowers, which she learned to classify with a copy of Asa Gray’s Elements of Botany. She also collected butterflies and moths and later wrote, "I believe my interest in nature is primarily aesthetic."

Hyman graduated from high school in Fort Dodge in 1905 as the youngest member of her class and the valedictorian. Uncertain of her future, she began work in a local factory, pasting labels on cereal boxes. Her high school teacher of English and German persuaded her to attend the University of Chicago, which she entered in 1906 on a one-year scholarship. She continued at the university with further scholarships and nominal jobs. Turning away from botany because of an unpleasant laboratory assistant, she tried chemistry but did not like its quantitative procedures. She then took zoology and was encouraged in it by Professor Charles Manning Child. After receiving a B.S. in zoology in 1910, she acted on Child’s advice to continue with graduate work at the University of Chicago. Supporting herself as laboratory assistant in various zoology courses, she concluded that a better laboratory text was needed, which in time she was to supply. She received a Ph.D. in zoology in 1915, with a thesis on regeneration in certain annelid worms. Again unsure of her future, she accepted a position as research assistant in Child’s laboratory, and she taught undergraduate courses in comparative anatomy.

After Hyman’s father’s death in 1907, her mother had moved to Chicago, bringing Hyman "back into the same unhappy circumstances which lasted until the death of my mother in 1929. 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" (quoted in Hutchinson, p. 106).


At the request of the University of Chicago Press, Hyman wrote A Laboratory Manual for Elementary Zoology (1919), which promptly became widely used, to her astonishment. She followed this, again at the publisher’s request, with A Laboratory Manual for Comparative Vertebrate Anatomy (1922), which also had great success. She was, however, much more interested in invertebrates. By 1925 she was considering how to prepare a laboratory guide in that field but "was persuaded by [unnamed] colleagues to write an advanced text" (quoted in Hutchinson, p. 107).

While at the University of Chicago, Hyman also wrote significant taxonomic papers on such invertebrates as the Turbellaria (flatworms) and North American species of the freshwater cnidarian Hydra. She published an enlarged edition of her first laboratory manual in 1929.

In 1931 Hyman concluded that she could live on the royalties of her published books, and she also recognized that her mentor Child was about to retire. She therefore resigned her position at Chicago. Hyman toured western Europe for fifteen months and then returned to begin writing a treatise on the invertebrates. Settling in New York City in order to use the library of the American Museum of Natural History, she became, in December 1936, an unpaid research associate of the museum, which provided her with an office for the rest of her life.

There Hyman created her six-volume treatise on invertebrates, The Invertebrates, drawing on her familiarity with several European languages and Russian, which she had learned from her father. Without any assistant, she compiled notes from books and scientific papers, including those in the many journals to which she subscribed, organized the notes on cards, and wrote an account of each invertebrate group. Colleagues said that she had a prodigious memory. She took art lessons in order to illustrate her work professionally. She also spent several summers studying specimens and drawing illustrations at Bermuda Biological Laboratory, Marine Biological Laboratory, Mt. Desert Island Biological Laboratory, and Puget Sound Biological Station.