Finding Aids to Records of Professional Societies in the Smithsonian Institution Archives
Record Unit 7351
American Society of Zoologists
The beginnings of the American Society of Zoologists (ASZ) date from the decade of the 1880s, the period in the history of American science during which many of today's major scientific societies were formed. Closely associated with the American Society of Naturalists (ASN), which was founded in 1883, and the American Physiological Society (APS), which emerged in 1887, most of the early founders of ASZ belonged to one or both of these organizations. Desiring a new society that emphasized the importance of laboratory-based research in natural history, these individuals gathered in Boston in 1890 to establish the American Morphological Society during the same December week the ASN and APS met (always in conjunction with the leading scientific society in the United States, the American Association for the Advancement of Science). In fact, all these societies maintained a very close relationship throughout the end of the nineteenth century; presidents of one society were often subsequently elected to the same office in another society, members of one society were members of the other societies, and the American Naturalist served as the official journal of both the ASN and the morphologists.
During the early years of the twentieth century, American biologists struggled to provide a more precise definition for their discipline, especially as it experienced the transformation typical of developing professions. In particular, biology became a generic category under which a number of subspecialties were clustered. As a result, the morphologists decided to adopt a new societal name, suggested by Charles O. Whitman and C. B. Davenport, that described the actual orientation of the society's members to the core of American biology. Accordingly, in 1903 the official name became the American Society of Zoologists, emphasizing the group's interest in whole animal biology. Organizationally, for the next ten years ASZ was split into two regional groups that functioned independently, the eastern and central group. But in 1914, the two branches officially merged to form the present national American Society of Zoologists. The by-laws and rules of the new society were based on the constitutions and by-laws of the American Morphological Society, the ASN, and the APS.
At about the same time that ASZ became a truly national organization through the merger of the two regional branches, the leadership of the society began to confront the perceived need to make ASZ a "federation" for biologists. Hence, by the second decade of the twentieth century the annual meeting featured papers divided according to distinct specialty areas, including ecology and behavior (lumped together), comparative anatomy, comparative physiology, and genetics. The latter area, genetics, created some tension between ASZ and ASN, largely over the issue of whether genetics belonged in a society in which all of biology was a focus, i.e., animals and plants (the position of the naturalists) or whether the zoologists could claim a genetic specialty area. The debate was interrupted by the experience of science in World War 1, which required that such internecine arguments be set aside in favor of greater societal cooperation directed toward the war effort. By the early 1920s, consequently, such difficulties were forgotten and ASZ emerged from the war years as the nation's truly generalist biological society. Annual meetings featured papers collected under separate sections of genetics, ecology, comparative anatomy, embryology, cytology, comparative physiology, protozoology, and endocrinology.
But a recurring theme in the history of the ASZ has been the relationship between the Society and areas of biology that represent new horizons in the biological sciences. In the 1930s, the focus again was on genetics, especially as this new specialty area came to dominate the biological sciences. When the Genetics Society of America (GSA) was formed in 1932, the ASZ was threatened with the prospect of losing animal geneticists to a new organization that emphasized this exciting area. To counter this potential loss, the Society began to sponsor symposia at its annual meeting with topics in genetics that featured many of the prominent members from GSA. Such a cooperative strategy culminated in a joint meeting of ASZ with GSA in 1938. Again, another World War interrupted ASZ's organizational problems, but the war did not hide the society's need to address its role vis-a-vis new directions in American zoology.
World War II disrupted much of the normal activities of science in the United States, even leading to the cancellation of the annual ASZ meeting in 1942 and 1943. But following the war, the leaders of the society expressed their concern with the lack of a clear organizational structure for ASZ that would enable it to serve effectively as the umbrella organization for American biologists. Noting that the physics community in the United States emerged from the war as a unified discipline, several of these individuals gathered with their colleagues who were members of botany, genetics, and ecology societies to form the American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS) in 1948. Aided in part by the encouragement of the National Academy of Sciences, the new organization took the pressure from ASZ by serving as the national coordinating society for the many specialty biological societies in the United States. A few years later, the new National Science Foundation awarded ASZ with a two-year grant "to study the role of the Society in present-day science," a study that enabled the society to focus on fulfilling the needs of the nation's animal biologists. This study resulted in the creation of the divisional organization of ASZ, an arrangement that finally equipped the society with a mechanism to meet the diverse interests of the zoological community and to respond to changing directions and research perspectives in zoology. By the end of the 1950s, ASZ became organized into divisions of Developmental Biology, Comparative Endocrinology, Comparative Physiology, and Animal Behavior; Invertebrate Zoology and Vertebrate Morphology were added by 1962.
The divisional structure of ASZ was a prescient one. From the 1960s to the present time, several new divisions have been added to the Society, other divisions have modified their name to reflect changes within zoology, and affiliate societies have been attracted to ASZ through association with its divisions. Consequently, not only did ASZ prevent the splintering that it had experienced early in the century, but it also experienced impressive growth in membership. At about the same time it developed the divisional structure, ASZ illustrated another characteristic of mature scientific societies: it began its own journal. The idea for ASZ's journal emerged from the same examination of the Society's future that resulted in its divisional structure. The initial effort appeared in 1960 as a newsletter, but almost immediately Emil Witschi, ASZ's president at the time, recommended the publication of a journal, and the American Zoologist was established at the beginning of 1961. P. Sears Crowell was the first editor and contributed substantially to forming the journal into a prominent scientific publication. The result of all these changes was the creation of an interdisciplinary society that served as an umbrella organization for more than just American zoologists. In fact, the additions of divisions in ecology and history and philosophy of biology and the inclusion of affiliate societies, such as the American Microscopical Society, led many ASZ leaders in the early 1980s to consider a more overt recognition for the inclusiveness of the Society. As a result, when the Society selected 1989 as its centennial year, its leadership also decided to officially recognize the expanding arena of ASZ's influence by adopting the official modifier, "Society of Integrative and Comparative Biology."
At the present time, the Society has continued to expand its focus, especially to meet the needs of biologists in the twenty-first century. Part of this expansion has been due to the natural progression of the Society's functions, many of which are carried out through ASZ's Executive Office. This office, initiated by Aubrey Gorbman, dated from 1967 when Mary Adams-Wiley assumed the role of the executive officer for ASZ. By the early 1990s, she had created an efficient bureaucratic structure to handle the Society's day-to-day operations, especially the coordination of the Society's divisions with each other and the planning for the annual meeting. These operations are now handled by one of the country's major organizational planning agencies, Smith Bucklin of Chicago. The new business organization of the Society is an indicator that ASZ has emerged at the end of the twentieth century as a major society of American biology.
This finding aid was digitized with funds generously provided by the Smithsonian Institution Women's Committee.
These records document the history and development of the American Society of Zoologists from its inception in 1903 through 1992. The collection begins with scrapbook entries from its predecessor organization, the American Society of Morphologists, dating back to 1890 and includes a number of early documents and correspondence, minutes, reports, financial records, audiocassettes, photos, and other memorabilia from the files of many of the officers and committees serving through 1992.
This collection is indexed under the following access terms. These are links to collections with related topics, persons or places.
- American Physiological Society (1887- )
- American Morphological Society
- American Society of Naturalists
- Science as a Way of Knowing Project
- American Society of Zoologists
- Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching
- American zoologist (Serial)
Physical Characteristics of Materials in the Collection
Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 7351, American Society of Zoologists, Records