Wheeler, William Morton (1865-1937)

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William Morton Wheeler
Born (1865-03-19)19 March 1865
Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Died 19 April 1937(1937-04-19) (aged 72)
Cambridge, Massachusetts
Nationality American

Biographical Note

Born as the son of Julius Morton and Caroline Georgiana Wheeler (née Anderson) in Milwaukee, he was transferred from public school to a local German academy due to, in his own words, "persistently bad behavior". They had a small museum which Wheeler had studied since he was a child, and when Ward's Natural Science Establishment in early 1884 brought a collection of stuffed and skeletonized animals to the academy, to persuade the city fathers to purchase them, Wheeler volunteered to spend the nights in helping Ward to unpack and install the specimens. The latter was so impressed that he offered Wheeler a job in his Rochester, New York establishment. Here he identified birds and mammals, and later collections of shells, echinoderms and sponges. His shell catalogue was still in use by collectors in the late 1920s.

Wheeler was trained as an insect embryologist, having studied under Baur, Dohrn and Whitman, but he became the leading authority on the behaviour of social insects, achieving particular renown for his studies of social behaviour of ants. He was instrumental in the development of ethology and first popularized the term in a 1902 paper in Science.

He was a taxonomist of the highest order, and was responsible for the descriptions of innumerable species, among them Pogonomyrmex maricopa, the most venomous insect in the world. Professor Wheeler was curator of invertebrate zoology in the American Museum of Natural History, New York, from 1903 to 1908. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences.

A close contact of the British myrmecologist and coleopterist Horace Donisthorpe, it was to Wheeler that Donisthorpe dedicated his first major book on ants in 1915. Donisthorpe and Wheeler also frequently exchanged specimens, leading the latter to first develop the idea that the Formicinae subfamily had its origins in North America.

He was professor of applied biology at Harvard University's Bussey Institute, which had one of the most highly regarded biology programs in the United States. One of his pupils there was Alfred Kinsey.

His work includes 467 titles

Wheeler began his study of ants while he was a professor of zoology at the University of Texas at Austin (1899–1903), and he greatly extended the scope of his research after becoming curator of invertebrate zoology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City (1903–08). His investigations dealt particularly with ant taxonomy, morphology, and distribution as well as with ecology, habits, and social relations. He discovered that the social behaviour of ants was among the most complex in the insect world, leading him to use the ant colony as a behavioural analogy for human civilization. His findings were based on firsthand observations of ant species collected from all over the world, including Morocco, the Galapagos, and the Canary Islands.

Later in his career (1930), Wheeler made an important study of the biology of the antlion, the larvae of the neuropteran family Myrmeleontidae.

Student, German-English Academy, Milwaukee, ?-1883

Assistant, Ward's Natural Science Establishment, Rochester, 1884-1885

Teacher, German-English Academy, Milwaukee, 1885-1887

Researcher, Allis Lake Laboratory, 1886-1890

Director, Milwaukee Public Museum, 1887-1890

Summer research at Woods Hole, 1889-1892, 1894, 1898, 1900, etc.

Ph.D. student, Clark University, 1890-1892

Professor, Department of Zoology, University of Chicago, 1892-1899

Research in Münich, Naples, Liège, 1893-1894

Chairman, Department of Zoology, University of Texas, Austin, 1899-1903

American Museum of Natural History, 1903-1908

Harvard University, 1908-1937

Ant Taxonomy

Wheeler published 252 ant taxonomic papers during his lifetime. He published from 1900 until 1942.

Taxonomic Publications

  • Wheeler, W. M. 1942. Studies of Neotropical ant-plants and their ants. Bull. Mus. Comp. Zool. 90: 1-262

References

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