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Guide to the Alfred H. Sturtevant Papers, 1849-1969
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Table of contents What's This?
  • Descriptive Summary
  • Administrative Information
  • Introduction
  • Related Collections

  • Descriptive Summary

    Title: Alfred H. Sturtevant Papers,
    Date (inclusive): 1849-1969
    Creator: Sturtevant, Alfred H.
    Extent: 22 linear feet
    Repository: California Institute of Technology. Archives.
    Pasadena, California 91125
    Language: English.

    Administrative Information


    Collection is open for research.

    Publication Rights

    Copyright has not been assigned to the California Institute of Technology Archives. All requests for permission to publish or quote from manuscripts must be submitted in writing to the Head of the Archives. Permission for publication is given on behalf of the California Institute of Technology Archives as the owner of the physical items and is not intended to include or imply permission of the copyright holder, which must also be obtained by the reader.

    Preferred Citation

    [Identification of item, Box and file number], Alfred H. Sturtevant Papers, Archives, California Institute of Technology.


    The papers of Alfred Henry Sturtevant at the Archives of the California Institute of Technology are a rich source for the study of both the social and intellectual history of genetics. The papers, presented to the Archives in 1970 as a gift from his widow, Mrs. Phoebe Sturtevant, total fifty boxes: six boxes of correspondence, four of personal material, four of material (including correspondence) pertaining to the genetic effects of radiation, ten boxes of manuscripts, nineteen boxes of laboratory notebooks, and seven boxes of miscellany.
    The correspondence is primarily post-1940, in spite of the fact that Sturtevant's professional career dates from the 1910s. Sturtevant's disinclination to preserve correspondence may be explained in part by his reservations about the historical value of letters:
    Letters [he wrote in 1969] are often casual and may not represent the considered opinion of the author. Their content also depends on who they are written to. A man's influence on his subject is surely best understood through his published work, and if he has been a teacher, through the work of his students and the opinions of his close colleagues. In short ... I feel that excessive use of letters and manuscripts may be both unfair and misleading. 1
    Researchers should thus be prepared to find that the correspondence files, while often containing items of great interest, are generally disappointingly slim (Sturtevant's taxonomic correspondence is one notable exception). With this caveat in mind, correspondence files containing material of both scientific and general interest include those of George Beadle (1946-1969), Kenneth Cooper (1943-1962), M. Demerec (1944-1959), H. J. Muller (1957-1966), Edward and Esther Novitski (1945-1966), Herschel Roman (1961-1968), Franz Schrader (1946-1962), and Curt Stern (1945-1968). Correspondence files primarily scientific in nature include those of James Crow (1955-1967), R. B. Goldschmidt (1949), J. T. Patterson (1938-1946), L. F. Randolph (1944-1950), W. P. Spencer (1938-1944), Harrison Stalker (1942-1962), and M. R. Wheeler (1950-1964).
    Although the collection contains no extant correspondence from the early days of the so-called "Morgan School" of geneticists, the Thomas Hunt Morgan file contains Sturtevant's correspondence about Morgan and the early history of genetics. Of particular interest in this respect is the correspondence with Fernandus Payne (1947), Alexander Weinstein (1957), H. J. Muller (1964), and Tracy M. Sonneborn (1967). Other useful material in the Morgan file includes transcripts of talks given at the Morgan Centennial Symposium in 1966, Sturtevant's notes on Morgan's genealogy, and miscellaneous biographical sketches of Morgan by Sturtevant and others. For useful information about another famous Morgan student, Calvin Bridges, see Sturtevant's correspondence regarding Bridges's biographical memoir (1966-1968) and an interesting letter from Jack Schultz (1966).
    The Morgan materials are complemented by Sturtevant's remarkable collection of photographs, particularly the three albums entitled "New York," "Woods Hole," and "Biologists." There are photographs of Morgan, the "Fly Room" (with the omnipresent bunch of bananas that fed both the flies and Morgan's colleague E. B. Wilson), and numerous pictures of the many young biologists who worked at Columbia and Woods Hole in the 1910s and 1920s.
    Scholars interested in the social history of genetics will find material on a number of social and political issues. The best documented subject is the debate during the 1950s over the biological, and particularly genetic, effects of radiation. 2 In 1954, Sturtevant attracted public attention when he warned of the genetic hazard from atmospheric testing of atomic and hydrogen bombs and criticized several statements made on the subject by the U. S. Atomic Energy Commission. Particularly informative are his correspondence (1954-1961) and the files from his tenure on the Genetics Committee of the National Academy of Sciences' study of the Biological Effects of Atomic Radiation (1955-1962).
    Material directly or tangentially related to the issue of Lysenkoism can be found scattered in several correspondence files: M. Demerec (1959), T. Dobzhansky (1945), Genetics Society of America - Public Affairs Pamphlet No. 165 (1952), R. B. Goldschmidt (1949), and Ralph Spitzer (1949). Anti-Semitism and the case of Hans Bauer is discussed in the Franz Schrader file (1946). Material on political issues and anti-communism can be found in the files of David Tyler (1947) and L. J. Stadler (1949). Two other files touching on social and political issues are the American Association for Scientific Workers (1940), whose isolationist position Sturtevant publicly criticized in a "Peace Counter Statement," and UNESCO (1952), regarding its "Statement on Race."
    As a scientist, Sturtevant is best known for his contributions to the genetics and taxonomy of Drosophila; scholars are directed to the excellent review of his work by his student and colleague, E. B. Lewis. 3 The collection includes many of Sturtevant's laboratory notebooks (dating from 1911), and some of his manuscripts (for which he held the same reservations that he did for letters). Particularly interesting are several early items: Sturtevant's diagrams (ca. 1911 or 1912) of crossing over, used in his classic paper on chromosome mapping; 4 an unpublished manuscript (ca. 1910s), "Radium Experiment with 'Big Smooth Black' Fruit Flies;" 5 and a manuscript (ca. 1920), "A Lethal in Drosophila that is perhaps a Deficiency," with a note added by Sturtevant in 1964, in which he commented, "This MS was prepared for publication, but was - fortunately - never submitted to a journal." 6
    The collection also documents Sturtevant's work on the genetics of forms other than Drosophila, especially horses (whose pedigrees he studied as a young boy), and iris. There are even notes for a study on the genetics of tongue-rolling, including data which Sturtevant apparently collected by polling colleagues, friends, and relatives. 7
    Sturtevant was interested in the history of genetics, and the collection includes the manuscript of his book, A History of Genetics, published in 1965. A distinctive feature of the book is Sturtevant's diagrammatic representation of the "intellectual pedigrees" of many European and American geneticists (Appendix B). Among Sturtevant's manuscripts are the notes he used to chart the pedigrees.
    Not surprisingly, Sturtevant was an authority on his own "pedigree;" notable among the four boxes of personal material are eighteen folders of genealogical papers, primarily family letters (1849-1969), notes, and tables.
    The collection is open to qualified scholars.
    Reproduced by permission from the Mendel Newsletter (No. 15, March 1978), a publication of the American Philosophical Society Library. The text and notes by Carolyn Kopp Harding have been slightly revised to reflect the current state of the collection (1999) and to reference the author's 1979 publication (note 2 below).
    1Holograph, 1969. The Papers of Alfred H. Sturtevant, Box 4.5.
    2Carolyn Kopp, "The Origins of the American Scientific Debate over Fallout Hazards," Social Studies of Science 9 (1979):403-422.
    3E. B. Lewis, "Alfred Henry Sturtevant," Dictionary of Scientific Biography 13:133-138 (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1976).
    4The diagrams appear on p. 54 of the laboratory notebook entitled "Sexual Selection, Gametic Coupling," Box 27.1. We are grateful to Elof Carlson for his discovery and identification of the diagrams.
    5Undated holograph, Box 16.1.
    6Undated typescript, Box 21.6.
    7Holographic notes, ca. 1940, Box 21.9.

    Related Collections

    Genealogy prepared by A. H. Sturtevant (microfilm)
    Historical File on A. H. Sturtevant
    Genealogy prepared by A. H. Sturtevant (microfilm)
    Historical File on A. H. Sturtevant
    Lectures by A. H. Sturtevant on audio tape:
    • "History of Genetics" 1962 April 12
    • "Mendel's Paper and the Period 1866-1900" 1962 May 3
    • "Life of Mendel" 1962 May 10
    • "T. H. Morgan" 1967 October 17
    Medals of A. H. Sturtevant
    • Kimber Genetics Award
    • John J. Carty Medal for the Advancement of Science
    Memorial Service for A. H. Sturtevant 1970 April 17 (audio cassette)
    Oral History of A. H. Sturtevant with Garland Allen 1965 July 24
    Photos of A. H. Sturtevant (A. H. Sturtevant papers and Photo Archives; overview at Archives' web site: http://www.caltech.edu/~archives)