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Joel Asaph Allen

Born  1838
Died  1921

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American naturalist, Born July 19, 1838, Springfield, Massachusetts; died August 29, 1921.

Biography of Joel Asaph Allen

Joel Asaph Allenwas one of the leading 19th century American mammalogists and ornithologists. He named many species and carried out important studies on geographic variation and its connection with climate.

Joel Asaph Allen took an early interest in the study of nature. In 1852, at the age of 14, he made a collection of birds and attempted to draw and colour them. He began his studies at the Wilbraham Academy, Springfield, Massachusetts, and in 1861 he sold his collections to the Academy in order to finance studies at Harvard. In 1862 he began his studies at the Lawrence Scientific School, Harvard University, under Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz (1807-1873). Agassiz, was professor at Harvard University 1847-1873, Director Museum of Comparative Zoology, 1859-1873, and in 1873 founded the Anderson School of Natural History at Penikese Island.

From April 1, 1865 to August 6, 1866, Allen was a zoological assistant on the Thayer expedition to Brazil. This expedition was headed by Agassiz and financed by Nathanial Thayer (1808-1883), and yielded a large collection of fishes.

In 1867 Allen was on a collecting expedition to western New York, south-eastern Indiana, northern Illinois, and southern Michigan. His next collecting expedition, in 1868/1869, for the Museum of Comparative Zoology, went to East Florida via St. Johns River to the head of Lake George. In 1871 his collecting expedition went to the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains. In 1873 he was the chief of the party of naturalists on an engineering and scientific expedition sent out by the Northern Pacific railroad from Bismarck, North Dakota to the Yellowstone for the Smithsonian Institution. This remarkable expedition was very dangerous because the region harboured dangers like wild animals and disease-bearing insects. Because of the threat from Sioux Indians they had a military escort comprising the famous seventh Cavalry with General George Armstrong Custer (1839-1876) in command, and parts of the Eighth and Twenty-Second Infantry, and a company of Indian scouts. Because of the threat from the Indians the scientists had to abandon bird collecting and side excursions for several weeks. The expedition was funded by Morris Ketchum Jesup (1830-1908), and it was the first to be officially organized by the American Museum of Natural History.

Allen was Curator of birds at Harvard Museum of Comparative Anatomy from 1867 to 1885, and curator of reptiles, birds and mammals, Boston Society of Natural History 1868-1880. From 1870 to 1875 he was an assistant in ornithology and curator of birds and mammals at the Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University, Cambridge, and in 1871 he received the Humboldt scholarship. He was director, of the department of birds and mammals at the American Museum of Natural History, New York, from 1885 until his death in 1921. From 1889 he was editor-in-chief of all the Museum's publications.

Allen was made a fellow of the American academy of arts and sciences in 1871 and in 1876 a fellow of the national academy of sciences. He was also a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and of the American Philosophical Society.

From 1883 to 1890 Allen served as the first president of the American Ornithologists' Union, founded in September 1883 by himself, William Brewster (1851-1919), and Elliott Coues (1842-1899). All three were members of the Nuttall Ornithological Club, named for Thomas Nuttall (1786-1859). He edited the club's Bulletin from 1876 to 1883. The American Ornithologists' Union is the oldest and largest organization in the New World devoted to the scientific study of birds. From January, 1894, the Union published its quarterly journal, The Auk, with Allen as its first editor.

A neo-Lamarckian, Allen did not believe in the Darwinian explanation for inherited differences. He used his observation of the adaptation of species to climate to argue that heritable variation was directly caused by the physical environment and was not produced by natural selection. Allen argued that heritable variation was directly caused by the physical environment and was not produced by natural selection. In this view, Allen supported his teacher, Agassiz, who commented on Darwinism that ""I trust to outlive this mania" (1867).

Allen was one of the first leaders of the American conservationist movement. He was a mild-mannered, shy man plagued by a variety of physical and emotional ailments.

    "Specimens have too often been described instead of species." (1869)

    "Among biologists who accept the modern theory of evolution as the only reasonable hypothesis available for the explanation of the diversity of structure among organized beings, there is a wide difference of opinion as to what are the leading causes of differentiation. The doctrine of natural selection, or the survival of the fittest, has recently been brought prominently forward as the key to this complex problem, and is upheld by a large class of enthusiastic adherents, who accept it as the full solution of the whole question. By others the conditions of environment are believed to be far more influential in effecting a certain class of modifications, at least, that the necessarily precarious influence of natural selection, which must take its origin in isolated instances of variation in favourable directions, and depend for its continuance upon these fortuitous advantages being inherited by the descendants of the favoured individuals in which they originate. The modifying influence of conditions resulting from geographic or climatic causes, was long since noticed, and for nearly a century has been considered by many writers as explanatory of much of the diversity existing not only in the human race, but among animals. It has, however, remained, until recently, vaguely grounded, being based more in conjecture than on observed facts. Scarcely, indeed, have two decades passed since the real nature and extent of geographical variation among animals, and even as yet among only a few species, began to receive careful attention, while only within the last fifteen years has any attempt been made to correlate the observed differences with the climatic or geographical conditions of habitat."
    Radical Review, 1877, 1:108.

We thank Andre Trombeta for information submitted.


  • On the Mammals and Winter Birds of East Florida, with an Examination of Certain Assumed Specific Characters in Birds, and a Sketch of the Bird Faunae of Eastern North America.
    Bulletin of Museum of Comparative Zoology, Cambridge, 1871, 2: 161-450.
  • The Fauna of the Prairies.
    The American Naturalist, Salem, Massachusetts, 1871, 5: 4-9.
  • The American Bison, Living and Extinct.
    Memoirs of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, 1876, 4 (10).
  • On Geographical Variation in Color among North American Squirrels. 1874.
  • Notes on the Mammals of Portions of Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah. 1874.
  • Geographical Variation in North American Birds. 1874.
  • Notes on the Natural History of Portions of Montana and Dakota. 1875.
  • The Influence of Physical Conditions in the Genesis of Species.
    Radical Review, 1877, 1:108-140.
  • The Geographical Distribution of the Mammalia, Considered in Relation to the Principal Ontological Regions of the Earth, and the Laws that Govern the Distribution of Animal Life. III. General Summary. 1878.
  • History of North American Pinnipeds, a Monograph of the Walruses, Sea Lions, Sea Bears, and Seals of North America.
    Washington, Government Printing Office, 1880.
  • Preliminary List of Works and Papers Relating to the Mammalian Orders Cete and Sirenia.
    U. S. Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories, 1881, VI: 3. Reprinted 1977.
  • The geographical distribution of North American mammals.
    Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History, 1892, 4: 199-243.
  • Primary Factors of Evolution. 1896.
  • J. A. Allen and Elliot Coues:
    Monographs of North American Rodentia. In F. V. Hayden (author): Report of the United States Geological Survey of the Territories. Washington, Department of the Interior, Government Printing Office. Volume XI, 1877.
  • Frank J. Sulloway:
    Joel Asaph Allen. Dictionary of Scientific Biography, 1990, 17: 20-23.

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