Dr. Rob Dillon, Coordinator





Monday, November 20, 2006

The Legacy of Frank Collins Baker

To the FWGNA Group:

Frank Collins Baker (1) is a hero of mine. Born in Warren, Rhode Island in 1867, he grew up playing with seashells brought to him by his seafaring grandfather. He attended a small business college and spent a year at Brown University before getting his big break, a Jessup Scholarship to the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia in 1889. At the ANSP he studied under Henry Pilsbry and took part in an expedition to Mexico. Then after several years working for "Ward's Natural Science Establishment" in Rochester (NY), Baker was offered a curatorship at the Chicago Academy of Science (1894 - 1915), where he produced his two-volume "Mollusca of the Chicago Area" (1898, 1902) and his monograph on the Lymnaeidae (1911). A change in research climate at the Chicago Academy sent Baker to the newly-established New York College of Forestry on the campus of Syracuse University for three years, during which time he completed his monumental study of Oneida Lake. In 1918 he accepted a curatorship at the University of Illinois Museum of Natural History (Urbana), where he crowned his productive career with his "Life of the Pleistocene or Glacial Period" (1920), the two-volume "Mollusca of Wisconsin" (1928), his "Fieldbook of Illinois Land Snails" (1939), and his monograph on the Planorbidae, published posthumously (1945).

Baker came from a middle class background, and had just the B.S. degree he earned at the Chicago School of Science in 1896. He was described by H. J. van Cleave (2) as "slight in stature, unpretentious in attitude, mild in disposition, kindly and charitable." Yet his lifetime bibliography extends to 360 titles, including several works to which students of American malacology often refer today.

I can still remember the marvel I felt when, as a graduate student at the ANSP 25 years ago, I first pulled Baker's Oneida Lake monograph off the dusty shelves of the malacology library. The volume was actually three publications of the New York State College of Forestry bound together: Technical Publication #4 (1916), Technical Publication #6 (1918), and Circular #21 (1918). The first work ("The Relation of Mollusks to Fish," 366 pages) was a meticulous description of the diet and habitats of every element of the Oneida Lake molluscan community and a catalogue of all their "enemies," piscine and otherwise. The second work ("Productivity of Invertebrate Fish Food ... with Special Reference to Mollusks," 264 pages) reported Baker's quantitative survey of Lower South Bay, concluding that his study area contained "4,704 million mollusks, and 3,062 million associated animals." The third work ("The Relation of Shellfish to Fish," 34 pages) was an abstract of the two larger works, intended for wider circulation.

Baker's Oneida Lake research was at the vanguard of the new science of Ecology. He took quantitative samples using an Ekman grab, a device so new that he felt obliged to figure it and describe it in detail. His publications featured gigantic fold-out maps of his study areas and equally gigantic fold-out data tables recording the raw counts of every snail, bug, and glob of algae he collected in all CDXII samples he took from Lower South Bay. There are scores of charming photographs where he spilled out the entire catch from selected samples for the camera ... hundreds of tiny little chironomid larvae pushed to one corner and wads of macrophyte knotted up below. The work was a labor of love, and a lighthouse for future studies of benthic ecology (3).

But for lasting influence, few works in American malacology can rival Baker's monographs on the Lymnaeidae (1911) and Planorbidae (1945). Both of these works featured meticulous scholarship and detailed anatomical drawings executed with great skill. His "Lymnaeidae of North and Middle America, Recent and Fossil" (Chicago Academy of Sciences Sp. Publ. #3) ran to 539 pages plus 60 plates, providing descriptions of shell, radula, and genitalia, as well as ranges and life history notes for the 95 species and subspecies he considered valid, organized into seven genera.

His "Molluscan Family Planorbidae" (University of Illinois Press) was intended to be worldwide in scope, with Part I ("Classification and General Morphology," 212 pages) providing complete descriptions of the 36 genera he recognized and Part II ("Planorbidae inhabiting North & South America," 21 pages) describing 26 new species and "varieties."  Baker's plan to provide detailed accounts of all the planorbid species then recognized in the Americas was cut short by his death. But his editor (van Cleave) was able to assemble 60 plates which would have accompanied the body of Baker's Part II text, together with their explanations, and add them to the 81 plates the author had intended for Part I.

F. C. Baker was innocent of the modern synthesis. It was in 1942, the year Baker died, that Ernst Mayr first formally proposed (and forcefully advocated) the biological species concept (4). Even in his last work, Baker was still attaching Latin nomena to "varieties" of gastropods, as for example, "Helisoma subcrenatum perdisjunctum is similar to disjunctum but is much smaller, about the size of oregonense, but lacks the characteristic shape of the aperture of the last named form."

Baker did not enjoy the understanding of intraspecific variation that informs the research of most evolutionary biologists today. But while he kept one foot firmly planted in 19th century typology, Baker strode forward to the 20th, bearing a profound appreciation for the biology of the animals he was classifying - anatomy, physiology, ecology, and more. I think of him as the "freshwater Pilsbry."  His contributions rank second only to those of Thomas Say in their impact on our understanding of the pulmonate gastropods inhabiting lakes and rivers in America today.

Keep in touch,
Rob


Notes

(1) A photo of the older Baker, together with a brief bio and partial bibliography, is available from Kevin Cummings' site at INHS.

(2) The biography above is based largely on "A Memorial to Frank Collins Baker" by H. J. van Cleave, published as pages xvii - xxxvi in Baker (1945). Baker's complete bibliography is available in that work as well. Van Cleave also published briefer obituaries in Science 95: 568 (1942) and The Nautilus 56: 97-99 (1943).

(3) To learn more about the Oneida Lake molluscan fauna, and its sad fate, see Harman & Forney (1970 - Limnol & Oceanog 15:454), Dillon (1981 - Am. Nat. 118:83) or my book (Dillon 2000) Chapter 9.

(4) For a nice historical review of the biological species concept, see Coyne (1994 - Evolution 48:19).

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