My Academic Genealogy

Becoming a scientist involves, among other things, personal transmission of knowledge and methodology from academic scientists to their students and trainees. Every scientist has spent time as an apprentice in the laboratory of a senior academic advisor or mentor, from whom they learned the tools and tricks of the trade. The budding scientist learns how to write a paper, how to make collaborations, how to hold a pipette, how to survive long periods of experimental failure, how to set up apparatus, and on and on. When students finally graduate with a doctoral degree, they go out into the world, and, eventually—with time, hard work and success—they become professors and begin to train their own students. And the cycle repeats, creating a long chain of teachers and students.

Every scientist can be said to be the product not only of his/her advisor but of all those scientists along the chain, creating a sort of genealogy of advisors and students, analogous to parents and children.  Its possible to produce the “academic genealogy” of any scientist by tracing the mentors of mentors as far as possible. I recently did this for myself using a web site called The Academic Family Tree. I will present the results going from myself backwards in time:

My mentor Charlotte Russell was Professor of Biochemistry at City University of New York, where she worked on heme biochemistry, as well as protein purification and natural product biochemistry.

Her mentor David Shemin (1911 – 1991) was Professor of Biochemistry at Columbia University. He worked on Heme biosynthesis and the biochemistry of red blood cell formation.

His mentor Robert M. Herbst (1904 – 1992) was Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Northwestern University. He worked on reactions and synthesis of amino acids and peptides, the synthesis and chemistry of polynitrogen heterocyclic systems, and the chemistry of medicinal compounds.
His mentor Treat Baldwin Johnson (1875 – 1947) was a Professor at Yale who worked on pyrimidine chemistry.

His mentor Henry Lord Wheeler (1867-1914) was Professor at Yale and a pioneering organic chemist and biochemist. His research focused on pyrimidines. He developed a test for the presence of uracil and cytosine. He was a founding editor of the Journal of Biological Chemistry.

His mentor Horace Lemuel Wells (1855 – 1924) was professor of analytical chemistry and metallurgy at Yale. Wells dealt with inorganic chemistry and mineral analysis, especially with the salts of the halogens.

His mentor Oscar Dana Allen (1836 – 1913) was a professor at Yale, who investigated the chemistry of cesium and rubidium and made the first accurate determination of the atomic weight of cesium.

His mentor Samuel William Johnson (1830 – 1909), traveled to Germany to study under Von Liebig. He became Professor of Agricultural Chemistry at Yale. He devised apparatus for the determination of carbon dioxide and improved the Kjeldahl method for determining nitrogen in proteins.

His mentor Justus von Liebig (1803 – 1873) was the founder of organic chemistry and made major contributions to agricultural and biological chemistry. He invented the Liebig condenser (still used today). After his studies in Paris with Gay-Lussac, he returned to Germany, where he become Professor at the University of Giessen.

His mentor Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac (1778–1850) is known for his discovery that water is made of two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen, and for Gay-Lussac’s law of  gasses. He also worked on measurement of alcoholic content in beverages.

His mentor Claude Louis Berthollet (1748 -1822) is known for his scientific contributions to the theory of chemical equilibria, for his contribution to modern chemical nomenclature, and work on bleaching agents.

Antoine Lavoisier (1743-1794) is widely considered to be the “father of modern chemistry” and central to the 18th-century chemical revolution. He identified oxygen and hydrogen, did research on combustion and stoichiometry, and had a major influence on both the history of chemistry and the history of biology.

 So I am 12 academic generations removed from the father of chemistry, Antoine Lavoisier. Pretty neat.

This was nice to see, but not surprising. It’s likely that most current scientists can trace their academic genealogy to early illustrious giants. What it means is that all scientists are standing on the shoulders of those who came before us in a very personal way.

But on another level, it’s nice to think that perhaps some word of wisdom conveyed from Lavoisier to Berthollet might have been passed down through these generations and repeated to me from Charlotte Russell, and from me to many others. Because it didn’t end with me. I have trained ten grad students and eleven post docs. And most of them have trained others. I have academic “children” and “grandchildren” as well as twelve generations of “ancestors.” This means that scientific conferences are actually family reunions of thousands of academic “cousins.”

I did a quick check, and I am happy to see that I am (academically) related to Francis Collins, Linus Pauling, and many more modern scientists, with Von Liebig as a common ancestor who trained dozens of European and American chemists and biochemists.  Welcome to the family!



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6 Responses to My Academic Genealogy

  1. Very cool. I think it also goes to show that we do indeed stand on the shoulders of those who preceded.
    Wondering at what points we find forms of “common ancestors”, particularly between the disciplines.

    • Great question, Kumi. I found a lot of common ancestors many of whom traced back to Liebig. Also the disciplines quickly change to chemistry, physics, and if you go far enough even music!! Check out the web site and try it out. Lots of fun for history nerds.

      • Found you, Sy. Jumping from your mentor to hers, I could see the progression. Fascinating.

        Only one name comes up from my university department. Like you, I think I’d need to get some information regarding my mentor to go any farther back. However, I think I picked up more from my field-supervisor who was from another facility where my work was tested… lots of names there, but not his.
        Wandering some of my own discipline’s trees however, it’s interesting to see where it branched off multiple times into fields such as chemistry, neurology, physiology, meteorology… even philosophy. Ernest Rutherford seems to show up a lot. Seems there’s been a lot of cross-pollination.

      • Sorry for the post script… I had no idea. I found my mentor… really a nice guy. He’s still listed at the university as a Professor Emeritus, and typing his name into the tree (correctly), he shows as three-generations removed from Enrico Fermi.

  2. Love this story, Sy!
    How did you figure out the mentors of earlier scientists?

    • There is a great web site (see the end of the second paragraph) that did if for me. But I had to start with the knowledge of my own mentor (Russell) and hers, since neither she nor I were listed in the database there. Somebody put it all together.

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