Biology is the study of life on earth. The History of Biology focuses on the advent of life on Earth from ancient times. Biological discoveries have had a remarkable impact on human society. Traditionally, the history of biology is diversified into two wings – studies on medicine and theories of natural history. Medicines are not the result of current biological discoveries.
Have you heard names like Hippocrates, Aristotle, and Galen of Pergamum? Well, these eminent people were the first explorers of the anatomy and physiology of living organisms. Their works focused on the naturalist leanings of organisms, especially animals. Theophrastus, the most notable work of Aristotle, still holds a valuable place in the hearts of our modern-day scientists. Do you know why? Theophrastus enormously contributes to studying zoology, botany, ecology, and taxonomy, all essential branches of biology.
Awareness about medicines became prominent during the middle ages. It is believed that Islamic scholars working by the Galenic and Aristotelian traditions were the first to introduce medicinal science. Neolithic Revolution was a big turning point in the history of biology. This age-old revolution, dated 10,000 years ago, brought farming and animal husbandry practices into the limelight.
Much before studying human beings, biology referred to studying plant and animal life. Works on botanical studies by Albertus Magnus (1206-1280) and ‘The Art on Falconry,’ introducing the first resource to ornithology by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II (1194-1250) played a pivotal role in shaping the natural history of biology.
Botany flourished during the Renaissance and early modern period. Plants were referred to as ‘material medical because studies proved that plants brimmed with amazing medicinal properties. Not just the Greek culture but the ancient cultures of Egypt, China, Mesopotamia, and India had an immense contribution to the evolution of biology. From classical Chinese medicine, formulated by theories by Yin and Yang and the Five Phases, to the Indian introduction of Ayurveda, the discovery and study of medicinal sciences became highly popular. The noted Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi first brought his ideas about evolution to the boards during the 4th Century. His philosophy stated that species differ in attributes in response to diverse environmental conditions. Developments began springing in gradually during the 17th and 18th Centuries.
Theories regarding a quantitative approach to physiology and Santorio’s studies on Metabolism ruled the charts. It was only during the 19th Century when several disciplines of biological science were introduced, like embryology, cytology, morphology, bacteriology, paleontology, geography, and geology.
The roots of Biology, the term coined after combining the Greek words ‘Bios’ meaning life, and ‘Logy’ meaning science, dates back to the secular traditions of ancient philosophies. Learning about the history of biology is an attempt to understand the evolution of science.
Here is the history of several branches of biology.
Cite This Page
Here are some excellent resources on various historians and scientists who have contributed to biological studies from the dawn of time:
A Brief History of the Human Genome Project
This chapter summarizes human genetics and its history with simple descriptions of modes of inheritance using commonly-used terms from the genetic literature. It also describes current efforts to create genetic maps and to sequence the 3 billion bases in the human genome.
Biographies – the Scientists
Alphabetical list of scientists, including biologists, each with a precis of the scientist’s life and achievements. Links to deeper and more extensive materials.
Adam Sedgwick (1785-1873)
Adam Sedgwick was born on March 22, 1785, the third of seven children of an Anglican vicar in Dent, Yorkshire, England. His home life was happy; like many geologists, young Adam rambled through the countryside, looking at and collecting rocks and fossils. Despite his family’s modest means, Sedgwick attended nearby Sedbergh School and then entered Trinity College at Cambridge University as a “sizar” — a type of scholarship student.
Antony van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723)
Leeuwenhoek was an unlikely scientist. He came from a family of tradesmen, received no higher education, and knew no languages other than his native Dutch.
This would have been enough to exclude him from the scientific community of his time. With skill, diligence, and an open mind free of scientific dogma, he made some of the most important discoveries in biology. He discovered bacteria, free-living and parasitic microscopic protists, and much more.
Aristotle (384-322 B.C.E.)
Though Aristotle’s work in zoology was not without errors, it was the grandest biological synthesis of the time and remained the ultimate authority for many centuries after his death. His observations on the anatomy of octopus, cuttlefish, crustaceans, and many other marine invertebrates are remarkably accurate and could only have been made from first-hand experience with dissection.
Biography of Francis Harry Compton Crick
Biography of Francis Harry Compton Crick from the Nobel Foundation.
Biography of James Dewey Watson
Biography of James Dewey Watson from the Nobel Foundation.
Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778)
Carl Linnaeus, also known as Carl von Linné or Carolus Linnaeus, is often called the Father of Taxonomy. His system for naming, ranking, and classifying organisms is still widely used today (with many changes). His ideas on classification have influenced generations of biologists during and after his own lifetime, even those opposed to his work’s philosophical and theological roots.
DNA from the Beginning
DNA from the Beginning is an animated primer on molecular biology and genetics. It goes through the major discoveries and experiments from Mendel’s peas to the 21st Century’s genetic age of the Human Genome Project.
Early Classics in Biogeography, Distribution, and Diversity Studies: To 1950
The following bibliography and full-text archive is designed to serve advanced students and researchers engaged in biogeography, biodiversity, history of science, and related studies. The subjects involved touch on fields ranging from ecology, conservation, systematics and physical geography to evolutionary biology, cultural biogeography, paleobiology, and bioclimatology–but have in common relevance to the study of geographical distribution and diversity.
Edward Drinker Cope (1840-1897)
Edward Drinker Cope was an American paleontologist and evolutionist. He was one of the founders of the Neo- Lamarckian school of evolutionary thought. This school believed that developmental (embryonic) timing changes, not natural selection, were the driving force of evolution. In 1867, Cope suggested that most changes in species occurred by coordinated additions to the ontogeny of all the individuals in a species.
Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802)
As a naturalist, Darwin formulated one of the first formal theories on evolution in Zoonomia, or, The Laws of Organic Life (1794-1796). He also presented his evolutionary ideas in verse, particularly in the posthumously published poem The Temple of Nature. Although he did not come up with a natural selection, he did discuss ideas that his grandson elaborated on sixty years later, such as how life evolved from a single common ancestor, forming “one living filament”.
Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919)
Much like Herbert Spencer, Ernst Haeckel was always quotable, even when wrong. Although best known for the famous statement “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny”, he also coined many words commonly used by biologists today, such as phylum, phylogeny, and ecology. On the other hand, Haeckel also stated that “politics is applied biology”, a quote by Nazi propagandists.
Georges Cuvier (1769-1832)
Undoubtedly, Georges Cuvier possessed one of the finest minds in history. He almost single-handedly founded vertebrate paleontology as a scientific discipline and created the comparative method of organismal biology, an incredibly powerful tool. It was Cuvier who firmly established the fact of the extinction of past lifeforms. He contributed an immense amount of research in vertebrate and invertebrate zoology and paleontology and also wrote and lectured on the history of science.
Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707-1788)
One hundred years before Darwin, Buffon, in his Historie Naturelle, a 44-volume encyclopedia describing everything known about the natural world, wrestled with the similarities of humans and apes and even talked about the common ancestry of Man and apes. Although Buffon believed in organic change, he did not provide a coherent mechanism for such changes. He thought that the environment acted directly on organisms through what he called “organic particles“.
Georgius Agricola (1494-1555)
Georg Bauer, better known by the Latin version of his name Georgius Agricola, is considered the founder of geology as a discipline. His work paved the way for further systematic study of the Earth and its rocks, minerals, and fossils. He made fundamental contributions to mining geology, metallurgy, mineralogy, structural geology, and paleontology.
History of Genetics: Professor Michael Dietrich, Dartmouth College, maintains a web site of useful resources on the history of genetics. Link.
Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829)
Lamarck’s scientific theories were largely ignored or attacked during his lifetime; Lamarck never won the acceptance and esteem of his colleagues Buffon and Cuvier, and he died in poverty and obscurity. Today, Lamarck is associated with a discredited theory of heredity, the “inheritance of acquired traits.” However, Charles Darwin, Lyell, Haeckel, and other early evolutionists acknowledged him as a great zoologist and forerunner of evolution.
John Ray (1628-1705)
One of the most eminent naturalists of his time, John Ray, was also an influential philosopher and theologian. Ray is often referred to as the father of natural history in Britain.
Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)
Including Leonardo da Vinci in a list of paleontologists and evolutionary biologists may seem unusual. Leonardo was and is best known as an artist. Yet he was far more than a great artist: he had one of the best scientific minds of his time. He researched fields ranging from architecture and civil engineering to astronomy, anatomy and zoology, geography, geology, and paleontology.
Louis Agassiz (1807-1873)
One of the great scientists of his day, and one of the “founding fathers” of the modern American scientific tradition, Louis Agassiz, remains a historical enigma. A great systematist and paleontologist, a renowned teacher, and a tireless promoter of science in America, he was also a lifelong opponent of Darwin’s theory of evolution. Yet even his most critical attacks on evolution have provided evolutionary biologists with insights.
Louis Pasteur was born on December 27, 1822, in Dole, Jura, France. His discovery that most infectious diseases are caused by germs, known as the “germ theory of disease”, is one of the most important in medical history. His work became the foundation for the science of microbiology and a cornerstone of modern medicine.
Mary Anning (1799-1847)
Even though Mary Anning’s life has been made the subject of several books and articles, comparatively little is known about her life, and many people are unaware of her contributions to paleontology in its early days as a scientific discipline. How can someone describe as ‘the greatest fossilist the world ever knew’ be so obscure that even many paleontologists are not aware of her contribution? She was a woman in a man’s England.
Nicholas Steno (1638-1686)
Despite a relatively brief scientific career, Nicholas Steno’s work on the formation of rock layers and the fossils they contain was crucial to the development of modern geology. The principles he stated continue to be used today by geologists and paleontologists.
Patrick Matthew (1790-1874)
He was not a trained scientist, and his evolutionary insights lie buried in his books and articles on agriculture and politics. Yet he developed a theory of natural selection nearly thirty years before the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species, with both big differences and remarkable similarities to Darwin’s theory.
Richard Owen (1804-1892)
With German transcendental anatomy, Owen synthesized French anatomical work, especially from Cuvier and Geoffroy. He gave us many terms still used today in anatomy and evolutionary biology, including “homology”. Owen famously defined homology in 1843 as “the same organ in different animals under every variety of form and function.”
Robert Hooke (1635-1703)
His name is somewhat obscure today due in part to the enmity of his famous, influential, and extremely vindictive colleague, Sir Isaac Newton. Yet Hooke was perhaps the single greatest experimental scientist of the seventeenth Century. His interests knew no bounds, ranging from physics and astronomy to chemistry, biology, geology, architecture, and naval technology.
The Alfred Russel Wallace Page
My site on Alfred Russel Wallace contains the full text of over 100 of his writings, extensive bibliographies, and various kinds of commentary. It is one of the largest history of science-oriented sites on the Web.
The History of Cell Biology
Too many colleagues forget what is already known in scientific literature. Acting as independent researchers, they have ignored the findings of their predecessors. I discovered by searching the Internet that websites often include contradictory descriptions of the same facts or events. If the study of scientific history were adequately funded, we would be compelled to write it anew.
The Works of Charles Darwin Online
Links to full-length, online versions of Charles Darwin’s most important books: The Voyage of the Beagle, The Origin of Species, and The Descent of Man.
The World of Richard Dawkins
Richard Dawkins was educated at Oxford University and has taught zoology at the Universities of California and Oxford. He is the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. His books about evolution and science include The Selfish Gene, The Extended Phenotype, The Blind Watchmaker, River Out of Eden, Climbing Mount Improbable, and most recently, Unweaving the Rainbow.
Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895)
Thomas Henry Huxley was one of the first adherents to Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. He did more than anyone else to advance its acceptance among scientists and the public.
Thomas Malthus (1766-1834)
Malthus was a political economist concerned about what he saw as the decline of living conditions in nineteenth-century England. He blamed this decline on three elements: The overproduction of the young, the inability of resources to keep up with the rising human population, and the irresponsibility of the lower classes. To combat this, Malthus suggested that the lower class’s family size should be regulated so that low-income families do not produce more children than they can support.
William Paley (1743-1805)
His most influential contribution to biological thought was his book Natural Theology: or, Evidence of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, Collected from the Appearances of Nature, first published in 1802. In this book, Paley laid out a full exposition of natural theology, the belief that the nature of God could be understood by reference to His creation, the natural world.
Étienne Geoffroy St. Hilaire (1772-1844)
Étienne Geoffroy St. Hilaire was born on April 15, 1772, in Étampes, near Paris, France. Receiving a law degree in 1790, he studied medicine and science in Paris at the College du Cardinal Lemoine. When the Reign of Terror struck, Geoffroy risked his life to save some of his teachers and colleagues from the guillotine. Managing to keep his head, Geoffroy was appointed a professor of vertebrate zoology at the Jardin des Plantes.