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Retirement of Professor Burt Green Wilder.

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After a service of forty-two years (1868-1910) Professor Wilder retired
from active service in Cornell University. During the present academic year (1910-11) he has p u t the department records, material
and museum in such shape that they will be of the greatest service in
the future. At the end of this college year, at the age of seventy, he
will leave Ithaca and reside in Brookline, Massachusetts, his boyhood
I n organizing the Cornell University in 1867-68 it seemed to Andrew
D. White, the first president, that provision should be made in its
faculty for instruction and investigation in the natural sciences. It was
his firm belief that it was the right and the duty of every educated man
to possess a knowledge of nature, and especially a knowledge of his
own structure and functions, and personal hygiene; hence provision was
made in the rlew university for instruction in those subjects; and for a
teacher, Louis Agassiz and Asa Gray recommended to President White,
Burt Green Wilder.
I n preparation for this work of creating a great department from the
foundation up, Professor Wilder had had the best training then available in the elementary studies. He had served as a surgeon in the
army from 1862-65. In this stern school of war, where often the
needs were overwhelmingly great and the means limited, he had learned
to make little go far. He had also learned the power of organization,
and the necessity for discipline. I n his college work and professional
training in the Lawrence Scientific School and .the Harvard Medical
School, he had come under the inspiring influence of those great teachers
and still greater men, Asa Gray, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jeffries Wyman
and Louis Agassiz.
To university teachers of the present day with luxurious quarters,
numerous assistants and preparators, and abundant apparatus and
material, it ofttimes seems a hardship to attend to the administrative
duties of a department, even with the aid of a stenographer. But in
starting with the new institution, Dr. Wilder was his own stenographer,
preparator and assistant. If he had any assistance it was from students
who were especially interested, and they received little or no pecuniary
compensation. He started literally at the bottom; his office and laboratory-for he had a laboratory from the beginning-were in basement
rooms now used for storing tools, etc.; and instead of a limited field, he
had the whole of zoology, and the whole of anatomy, physiology and
hygiene. Facilities were very meagre to start with, but they were
soon created. As stated above, he had a laboratory in which students
came in direct contact with real things from the beginning. He believed
that human anatomy-the
best known then as it is to day of
the anatomy of any animal-was a subject which would form one of
the best factors i n a biological training of the future as it had in the past.
He knew from abundant experience, too, that for the physician a chance
to study some part of human anatomy while he was studying comparative anatomy would give a broader outlook on medicine, hence human
anatomy was included as a part of his laboratory instruction. He realized very keenly, also, from practical experience, how inadequately
physicians were prepared to meet the demands put upon them, and very
early (1869) there was established a full four years’ course in natural
history, especially adapted for those intending to become teachers or
physicians. Somewhat later (1880), hoping to appeal to a larger number,
there was established a two years course ‘preparatory to medicine,’
in which the original four years preparatory course was represented by
the absolutely essential branches. It might be said in passing that this
two years preparatory course almost invariably became a four years
course for the students who entered it. Here then was the beginning,
or one of the first beginnings of the movement for the better education
of physicians, and the consequent improvement of medical schools in
our country. Besides attending to the instruction in lecture courses,
and in the laboratory, to say nothing of administrative duties, Professor Wilder was a teacher by example as well as by precept. He not
only taught laboratory work, but he did his investigations before us,
for his private laboratory was the general laboratory where we all worked,
and if we ever became weary and thoughtless, his tireless efforts before
our very eyes gave us a new sense of our opportunity to work.
The special interest of Professor Wilder was the philosophical significance of anatomy, and the subtle characters which show relationship
and homology. To him there was always a fundamental plan somewhere hidden, and to find and comprehend this plan fascinated him.
The educational museum which he built up contains hundreds of
specimens and dissections which bring out especially the relationship
of animals and their structural plan. The fullest use of these has always
been made to illustrate the lectures, and to impress fundamental ideas
by concrete examples.
I n the almost universal interest in the nervous system at the present
time few know that with a kind of prophetic insight Professor Wilder
saw that in the progress of anatomy and physiology the nervous system
was to play the most important part. In 1870-71 he gave lectures in
comparative neurology, and in 1875 vertebrate neurology became an
established course in the university, and was continued by him until
his retirement.
He believed most profoundly that if there were ever to be a true correlation found between the brain and character of the individual,
the brains of people whose life and character were well known must be
So convincing were his arguments that many intelligent people made
provision that such use was to be made of their brains after their death,
and already eleven such specimens are in the Cornell collection.
Besides these special human brains there are many others of all sorts
and conditions of men, and a very large number from different animals,
making nearly two thousand specimens in all.
I n his work in neurology Professor Wilder became convinced that one
of the greatest bars to the understanding of the nervous system, and
indeed of all anatomy, was the ponderous, often conflicting nomenclature.
He gave much time to a reform in this respect, and while his simple
intelligible and consistent nomenclature has not been generally accepted
yet the course of evolution is gratifying for what could not be ushered
in all at once is coming in slowly and surely by the law of the ‘survival
of the fittest.’
In tracing the history of Professor Wilder’s original department,
four special aims seem to have been dominant: (1) to give the best possible elementary instruction to beginning students, and no pains were
too great to accomplish this end; (2) to encourage those especially
interested to do advanced work, and to undertake the investigation of
special problems; (3) to combine the study of human and comparative
anatomy so that those aiming to become physicians could most intelligently and successfully pursue their later medical studies; and (4) the
establishment of independent departments with the growth of the university.
How completely this fourth aim has been realized during his active
service is shown by the fact that the work carried on by the original
department founded in 1868, is now represented by seven independent
departments each with a full professor at the head. It is true that
this development is as natural as it is necessary in the progress of education in our country; but what redounds to Professor Wilder’s credit
is that he deliberately made ready for these buds to grow, and when the
time came, helped them in every way to separate from the parent stem
and establish a vigorous and independent existence, without a thought
apparently that in so doing his own importance might thereby be lessened.
As a teacher, Professor Wilder always inspired his students with the
profound belief that the subject he was teaching was of supreme importance, and that the truth about this subject, as about every subject, was
what was worth knowing; and that no pains, however great, were too
much to devote to the discovery of this truth. He exemplified before
his students from day to day by his own tireless efforts how deep in him
was this belief, and that this belief was the guiding principle of his life.
How well he impressed his pupils with the love of science, and passed
over to them the inspiration received by him from Gray, Holmes, Wyman
and Agassiz, is attested by the distinguished men all over the country
who, at the end of his twenty-fifth year of service (1893), collaborated
in the presentation of a volume of scientific monographs written especially for the occasion-The Wilder Quarter Century Book-following
the Festschrift plan of honoring a beloved professor in Germany.
The farewell to give him on leaving the department over which he
has presided so long, might be fittingly expressed by slightly modifying
the final passage of the dedication of the Quarter Century Book: “May
the future of the department be presided over by those with thesame
unselfish devotion, high ideals, and the power to inspire both by teaching and by example.”. . . . . . .
At the third session of the Second International Congress of Anatomists held in Brussels on August 10, 1910, Professor Minot demonstrated clearly in an address the necessity of a reform in embryological
nomenclature. He recommended the appointment of an international
commission to undertake the work. This was discussed by Professors
Waldeyer, von Bardeleben, Eternod and Minot. Professor Waldeyer
suggested that the Commission have a general secretary and Professor
von Bardeleben nominated Professor Mall for this office, who was then
elected by the Congress. In addition the followingmembers of the Commission were appointed: Professors Brachet (Brussels), Bryce (Glasgow),
Eternod (Geneva), Hill (London), Hubrecht (Utrecht), Keibel (Freiburg), Mall (Baltimore), Minot (Boston), Nicolas (Paris), and Romiti
(Pisa). Upon the motion of Professor von Bardeleben the Commission
was empowered to name alternates and to coopt new members, as, for
example, a philologist.
Professor Mall, who was not present a t the meeting, finds that he is
unable to serve as general secretary and has resigned this ofice in favor
of Professor Minot. Nine of the members of the Commission approve
of this change, which therefore places Professor Minot at the head of
the Commission as general secretary.
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retirement, burt, greek, professor, wilder
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