Edmund Beecher Wilson

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Edmund Beecher Wilson
PSM V72 D291 Edmund Beecher Wilson.png
Born(1856-10-19)October 19, 1856
DiedMarch 3, 1939(1939-03-03) (aged 82)
Alma materYale University
Johns Hopkins University
Known forXY sex-determination system
AwardsDaniel Giraud Elliot Medal (1925)
Linnean Medal (1928)
John J. Carty Award (1936)
Fellow of the Royal Society[1]
Scientific career
InstitutionsWilliams College
Bryn Mawr College
Columbia University
InfluencedNettie Stevens[2]
Image from his textbook "The cell in Development and Inheritance", second edition, 1900.

Prof Edmund Beecher Wilson FRS(For) HFRSE (19 October 1856 – 3 March 1939) was a pioneering American zoologist and geneticist. He wrote one of the most famous textbooks in the history of modern biology, The Cell.[3][4] Though Nettie Maria Stevens was actually the first researcher to describe the chromosomal basis of sex (despite common misconception), he was able to branch off of her conclusion to further his own studies. The two conducted their research independently of each other.[5]


Wilson was born in Geneva, Illinois, the son of Isaac G. Wilson, a judge, and his wife, Carioline Clark.[6]

He graduated from Yale University in 1878. He earned his Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins in 1881.

He was a lecturer at Williams College in 1883–84 and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1884–85. He served as professor of biology at Bryn Mawr College from 1885 to 1891.

He spent the balance of his career at Columbia University where he was successively adjunct professor of biology (1891–94), professor of invertebrate zoology (1894–1897), and professor of zoology (from 1897).

Wilson is credited as America's first cell biologist. In 1898 he used the similarity in embryos to describe phylogenetic relationships. By observing spiral cleavage in molluscs, flatworms and annelids he concluded that the same organs came from the same group of cells and concluded that all these organisms must have a common ancestor. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1902.[7]

He also discovered the chromosomal XY sex-determination system in 1905—that males have XY and females XX sex chromosomes. Nettie Stevens independently made the same discovery earlier the same year and published first.[5]

In 1907, he described, for the first time, the additional or supernumerary chromosomes, now called B-chromosomes. The same year he became a foreign member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences.[8]

Professor Wilson published many papers on embryology, and served as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1913.

For his volume, The Cell in Development and Inheritance, Wilson was awarded the Daniel Giraud Elliot Medal from the National Academy of Sciences in 1925.[9] The American Society for Cell Biology annually awards the E. B. Wilson Medal in his honor.[10]


In 1904 he married Anne Maynard Kidder.[11]

Sutton and Boveri[edit]

In 1902 and 1903 Walter Sutton suggested that chromosomes, which segregate in a Mendelian fashion, are hereditary units: "I may finally call attention to the probability that the association of paternal and maternal chromosomes in pairs and their subsequent separation during the reducing division … may constitute the physical basis of the Mendelian law of heredity".[12] Wilson, who was Sutton's teacher and Boveri's friend, called this the "Sutton-Boveri Theory".

1902–1904: Theodor Heinrich Boveri (1862–1915), a German biologist, made several important contributions to chromosome theory in a series of papers, finally stating in 1904 that he had seen the link between chromosomes and Mendel's results in 1902 (although this is not documented in his publications).[13] He said that chromosomes were "independent entities which retain their independence even in the resting nucleus... What comes out of the nucleus is what goes into it".


  • An Introduction to General Biology (1887), with W. T. Sedgwick
  • The Embryology of the Earthworm (1889)
  • Amphioxus, and the Mosaic Theory of Development (1893)
  • Atlas of Fertilization and Karyokinesis (1895)
  • The Cell in Development and Inheritance (1896; second edition, 1915; third edition, 1925)
  • This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainGilman, D. C.; Peck, H. T.; Colby, F. M., eds. (1905). New International Encyclopedia (1st ed.). New York: Dodd, Mead. Missing or empty |title= (help)


  1. ^ Morgan, T. H. (1940). "Edmund Beecher Wilson. 1856–1939". Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society. 3 (8): 123–126. doi:10.1098/rsbm.1940.0012.
  2. ^ "Nettie Maria Stevens (1861–1912)". The Marine Biological Laboratory. Archived from the original on March 31, 2013. Retrieved August 18, 2013.
  3. ^ Wilson E.B. 1896; 1900; 1925. The cell in development and inheritance. Macmillan. The third edition ran to 1232 pages, and was still in use after World War II.
  4. ^ Sturtevant A.H. 1965. A history of genetics. Harper & Row, N.Y. p33
  5. ^ a b Brush, Stephen G. (June 1978). "Nettie M. Stevens and the Discovery of Sex Determination by Chromosomes". Isis. 69 (2): 162–172. doi:10.1086/352001. JSTOR 230427.
  6. ^ Biographical Index of Former Fellows of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 1783–2002 (PDF). The Royal Society of Edinburgh. July 2006. ISBN 978-0-902198-84-5.
  7. ^ "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter W" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 10 April 2011.
  8. ^ "Edm. B. Wilson (1856–1939)". Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 20 July 2015.
  9. ^ "Daniel Giraud Elliot Medal". National Academy of Sciences. Archived from the original on 1 August 2012. Retrieved 22 August 2013.
  10. ^ E. B. Wilson award page at ASCB.org
  11. ^ Biographical Index of Former Fellows of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 1783–2002 (PDF). The Royal Society of Edinburgh. July 2006. ISBN 978-0-902198-84-5.
  12. ^ Sutton, W.S. (1902). "On the morphology of the chromosome group in Brachystola magna". Biol. Bull. 4 (1): 24–39 [39]. doi:10.2307/1535510. JSTOR 1535510.
  13. ^ Boveri T. 1904. Ergebnisse uber die Konstitution der chromatischen Substanz des Zellkerns. Fischer, Jena.


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