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During its centennial celebrations in 2008, the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology (MVZ) at the University of California, Berkeley paid homage to its founding director, Joseph Grinnell. Recognized as a leading scientific institution, the MVZ managed to grow throughout the twentieth century, a period often characterized by the decline of natural history. To understand how and why research flourished at the MVZ, this paper looks closely at Grinnell's undergraduate course, the Natural History of the Vertebrates (NHV). Taught by MVZ affiliates since 1914, the NHV offers an important window on Grinnell's approach and legacy. This paper argues that the NHV contributed to the MVZ's long-term success by acting as, first, a gateway to natural history; second, a vector for the MVZ's research programme; and third, a shared faculty responsibility. Grinnell's significance in the history of science is understated, in part because his writing style de-emphasized the importance of his theoretical contributions, including his development of the niche concept, his emphasis on population thinking and geographic isolation in studies of evolution, and his effort to integrate speciation questions and genetics. Studying the NHV highlights these contributions because Grinnell freely communicated his ideas to his students. An analysis of Grinnell's course material shows that his theoretical and methodological approach pre-dated the evolutionary synthesis and inspired natural-history research throughout the past century.
(Online publication December 02 2011)
A version of this paper was presented at the biennial meeting of the International Society for the History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology in Brisbane, Australia, July 2009. I am indebted to Monica Albe for introducing me to the Natural History of the Vertebrates course, and to Rauri Bowie, Jim McGuire, Alan Shabel and Lauryn Benedict for allowing me to participate in the course. I am grateful to Elihu Gerson, James Griesemer, William Z. Lidicker, Lisa Onaga, James L. Patton, Jim McGuire and several anonymous referees for helpful comments on earlier drafts, and to Cathryn Carson, Karen Klitz and Craig Moritz for insightful discussions. I am thankful to the librarians at the Bancroft Library who provided assistance with the archives. I am especially indebted to James L. Patton and William Z. Lidicker, who have thoughtfully answered my endless questions. This material was based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0823401.