Libbie Hyman

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Libbie Hyman : biography

December 6, 1888 – August 3, 1969

Volume I (Protozoa through Ctenophora) of The Invertebrates, published in February 1940, was acknowledged as "comprehensive" and "authoritative," with "illustrations designed for clarity and simplicity." Volume 2 (Platyhelminthes and Rhynchocoela) and Volume 3 (Acanthocephala, Aschelminthes, and Entoprocta), both published in 1951, were followed by Volume 4 (Echinodermata) in 1955, Volume 5 (Smaller Coelomate Groups) in 1959, and Volume 6 (Mollusca I) in 1967. Hyman’s biographer Horace Wesley Stunkard noted that The Invertebrates "incorporates incisive analysis, judicious evaluation and masterly integration of information." Declining health did not allow her to finish the entire subject. The completed volumes, which continue to be significant references in zoology, represent an astonishing accomplishment by an individual.

This work is not notable only as a compendium. In it she developed her scientific theory that the Phylum Chordata, including all vertebrates, was evolutionarily related to the apparently very different and very much more primitive Echinodermata, such as starfish. This group is now known as the deuterostomes. Her theory was based upon the morphological data of classical embryology, and has since been confirmed by molecular sequence analysis.

In addition to her major project, Hyman extensively revised A Laboratory Manual for Comparative Vertebrate Anatomy in 1942 into a textbook as well as laboratory manual; she referred to it as her "bread and butter" for its income. She wrote about 136 papers on physiology and systematics of the lower invertebrates and published technical papers on annelid and polyclad worms and on other invertebrates. She commented in a letter: "The polyclads of Bermuda were so pretty that I could not resist collecting them and figuring out Verrill’s mistakes" (quoted in Schram, p. 126). Addison Emery Verrill had been an earlier expert in invertebrate classification.

Hyman served as editor of the journal Systematic Zoology from 1959 to 1963. She was honored in 1961 with membership in the National Academy of Sciences, from which she had received the Daniel Giraud Elliot Medal in 1951. She also received the gold medal of the Linnean Society of London (1960) and a gold medal from the American Museum of Natural History (1969). She was described as independent, outspoken, and given to poignant epithets, and as warm and generous to her few close friends. Hyman never married. She died in New York City.