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About Emil Witschi (1890-1971)

Swiss-American Embryologist, Endocrinologist
Professor of Zoology, University of Iowa, Iowa City

By Tom Potter

Remarks by Sheldon J. Segal    Emil Witschi Slide Show    1937 Mexico Diary

My grandfather, Emil Witschi, was a zoologist with a lifelong interest in the biology of sex.  His research focused on the mechanisms of sexual differentiation and sexual development.  He wanted to know why some embryos are destined to mature into male organisms, and some into females; and he wanted to explain the steps along the way.  During the years 1927-1958, he was professor of zoology at the University of Iowa.  It was there that he authored or co-authored most of his approximately 200 scientific articles, and there that he guided 38 men and women to the Ph.D. degree.  Witschi was the recipient of numerous honors, including the presidency of the American Society of Zoologists (1959-1960), and the Fred Conrad Koch Award of the Endocrine Society (1960).

He was born in Switzerland in 1890 and moved to the U.S. in 1927 with his wife and his two children.  He died in New York in 1971. 

For more about Emil Witschi's life, see remarks by Sheldon J. Segal, and view the slide show of Witschi's life.  Elsewhere on this website, you can read Witschi's historic 1937 Mexico Diary and view nearly 300 photos of Mexico taken by him.

Emil Witschi Time Line

1890 (Feb 18) Birth of Emil Witschi in Bern, Switzerland.  (His future wife, Martha Mühlestein, was born just a few days earlier, in Biel, Switzerland.)
1909 B. A., Bern Teachers College.
1911 M. S. State University, Bern.
1913 Ph.D. in zoology, Munich.  Thesis advisor: Richard Hertwig.  Witschi's dissertation concerns sexual differentiation in frogs.
1914 Marriage to Martha Mühlestein.
1914 (August) Beginning of World War I interrupts Witschi's combined honeymoon and research appointment at Marine Lab in Roscoff, France.  Swiss Army orders Witschi home to join his army unit.
1914-1918 Part time service in the Swiss army.
1914-1927 Appointment as teacher in Scientific Gymnasium, Basel.  Served until 1927.  Docent in zoology and comparative anatomy at University of Basel, 1921-23.  Lecturer in experimental zoology, University of Basel, 1924-27.
1916 Birth of daughter, Marianne Witschi.
1918 Birth of son, Hans Witschi.
1919 Publication in Bern of Witschi's Von Blumen und Tieren, a natural history story book for children, illustrated by Witschi's Gymnasium students.
1921 Publishes first paper in English, commenting on a paper by W. W. Swingle.
1922 Research appointment in Richard Goldschmidt's laboratory, Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, Berlin.
1926 Early in the year, Witschi travels to America, beginning a year of lecturing, study, and research.  His wife and two children remain in Europe.
1926 Rockefeller Foundation Fellow, Osborn Laboratory, Yale University.  Four months there, studying and working with Ross G. Harrison.
1926 Rockefeller Foundation Fellow at University of Chicago.  Several months there.  Contact with Carl R. Moore and F. R. Lillie.
1927 Witschi's wife Martha joins him in America (late 1926 or early 1927).  Their two children remain behind in Europe, staying with relatives.
1927 Rockefeller Foundation Fellow at University of California, Berkeley, with Herbert M. Evans. First four months of the year.
1927 (May or June?) Returns with his wife to Basel to wrap up teaching duties there.  He has offers of employment from both Evans in Berkeley and Swingle in Iowa City.  Accepts the Iowa position.
1927 (Summer) Witschi, his wife, and their two children move to Iowa City.
1927-1958 Professor of Zoology, University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa.
1933 The Witschis become naturalized citizens of the United States.
1937 Trip to Mexico with Allan J. Stanley. 
1947-1948 Visiting professor, Tübingen.
1955 Publication of Witschi's Development of Vertebrates, an embryology textbook.
1957-1961 Member, study section in endocrinology-NIH.
1958-1971 Professor Emeritus, University of Iowa.
1958-1959 Honorary President, Zoological Society of France.
1959 Visiting professor, Paris.
1959-1960 President, American Society of Zoologists.
1960 Honorary M.D., University of Basel, Switzerland.
1960 Fred Conrad Koch Award, Endocrine Society.
1961 Visiting professor, Yale.
1962 Visiting professor, Taiwan.
1962-1967 Specialist in reproductive physiology, Ford Foundation.
1963 Member of organizing committee of the International Congress of Zoologists, Washington, D.C.
1967-1971 Senior scientist, bio-medical division, Population Council (Rockefeller University).
1971 (June-9) Emil Witschi death in New York City.
1974 (June) Martha Witschi death.
 

References

Beams, Harold W.; Kollros, Jerry J.; and Marsh, Gordon, "Memorial Resolution, University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts",  undated (probably 1971 or 1972) and unpublished document, forwarded in a personal communication from Becky Birch, Assistant to Jack Lilien, PhD, DEO/Department Chair, The University of Iowa Department of Biological Sciences, Iowa City, Iowa.  [Harold W. Beams (1903-1992); Jerry J. Kollros (1917-2007); and Gordon Marsh (1902-1980) were colleagues of Emil Witschi in the Zoology Department, University of Iowa, Iowa City.  In this 3-page document, they give an abbreviated CV for Witschi, and a brief summary of his life and work.]

Gorbman, Aubrey, "Emil Witschi and the Problem of Vertebrate Sexual Differentiation", American Zoologist, 19:1261-1270 (1979).  Available online (subscription required).  [An assessment, 8 years after his death, of Witschi's life and work.  Aubrey Gorbman (1914-2003) was a leading reproductive biologist and endocrinologist, at Columbia University and the University of Washington.  Although he was a friend of Witschi, this review is not adulatory; it points to some failures of Witschi in addition to his successes.]

Greep, Roy O., "In Honor of Emil Witschi", American Zoologist, 12:175-177 (1972)  Available online (subscription required) .  [A short scientific obituary of Emil Witschi.  Roy O. Greep (1905-1997) was an endocrinologist at Harvard, recipient in 1971 of the Endocrine Society's Fred Conrad Koch Award, the same honor that Witschi had received earlier (1960).]

Segal, Sheldon J., "Life of Emil Witschi", June 17, 1971, published on this website with the permission of the author.

Witschi, Emil, Collected Publications, collected and bound by the author, 1911-1970 (6 volumes).  [Witschi's own collection of his scientific papers, in the University of Iowa Library Special Collections.]

Witschi, Emil, Development of Vertebrates, W. B. Saunders, Philadelphia, 1956 (588 pages).  [Witschi's embryology textbook for advanced undergraduate biology students.]

Witschi, Emil, Mexico Diary, 1937, edited by Thomas F. Potter, © 2002-2007 Thomas F. Potter.  [Diary, with nearly 300 photographs, from a 1937 trip to Mexico by Emil Witschi and his former student Allan J. Stanley.  I have published the diary and photos on this Daisyfield.com website, along with a Spanish translation.]

Witschi, Emil, Report on professorship at Tübingen 1948/49, unpublished typewritten report to Rockefeller Foundation, 1949(?), (48 pages).  [A fascinating description of science, education, and life in post-war Germany, in the University of Iowa Library Special Collections.]

Witschi, Emil, Von Blumen und Tieren ("Of Flowers and Animals"), Verlag E. Bircher, Bern, Switzerland, 1919 (68 pages).  Full title: Von Blumen und Tieren, Naturgeschichtliche Märchen, 1 Teil, Mit Buchschmuck von Schülern der Realschule Basel, herausgegeben von Dr. Emil Witschi.  [A book of children's tales related to natural history.  The stories, from various cultures and traditions, are retold by Witschi.  Contains many illustrations by Witschi's students, some printed in color.  Some artwork may be by Witschi himself.  It appears that Witschi may have planned a second volume that he never completed.]

Acknowledgements

Thanks to:

My sister, Martha Potter Kim, for helpful comments,

Becky Birch, Assistant to Jack Lilien, PhD, DEO/Department Chair, The University of Iowa Department of Biological Sciences, for sending the Beams/Kollros/March document, and

Pamela Widder, graduate student in biological sciences at Virginia Tech, for correcting the identification of the amphibian on Witschi's arm.

—Tom Potter, December, 2007
  Revised: May, 2008

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