Pearse, Arthur Sperry

Pearse, Arthur Sperry

Place of birth: 
Crete, NE
Date of birth: 
Place of death: 
Durham, NC
Date of death: 

With the founding of Duke University in the 1920s, the Biology Department was created around a pair of Trinity College professors, Bert Cunningham, a zoologist, and Hugo Blomquist, a botanist.

In 1927 they were joined by Arthur Pearse, a prominent ecologist and former president of the Ecological Society of America. Pearse added to the prestige of the department with his founding of Ecological Monographs, the first scientific journal published by Duke University Press. As the department moved to the Biology Building on the newly constructed West Campus, tensions between the botanists and zoologists led to a departmental rift. Eventually this rift led to the dissolution of the department in 1935 and the creation of the Botany Department, led by Blomquist, and the Zoology Department, led by Pearse. Pearse played a pivotal role in the establishment of the Marine Biology Laboratory in Beaufort, North Carolina, and served as the lab's first director from 1938 until 1945. He retired in 1948.

From Robert Durden's "The Launching of Duke University, 1924-1949."

Arthur S. Pearse should rank fairly high among the colorful and significant scholars in Duke's early history. A complex, idiosyncratic man, he spent the last two decades of his teaching career at Duke and remained both active and influential there for a number of years after his retirement in 1948. With his doctorate from Harvard, Pearse had taught at the University of Michigan and elsewhere before Joining the faculty at the University of Wisconsin. Many biologists travel frequently for research in exotic places around the globe, and Pearse was no exception.

On his way via London to Nigeria and other parts of Africa when Few talked with him at Duke in 1926, Pearse continued his far-flung travels for many years. With books and papers in the fields of ecology and parasitology, he served as president of the Ecological Society of America in 1926 and would hold prominent positions in other important professional organizations later in his career.

Reporting for duty at Duke early in 1927, Pearse informed a friend that he found "things at Duke rather unorganized, and from a scientific point of view, undeveloped, but the prospects for the future have promise." in a more positive vein, he informed another person that his son, Richard Pearse, had been "perfectly delighted" with his senior year at Duke after the first three years of college at Wisconsin. Having been initiated into Phi Beta Kappa at Wisconsin and made the highest average in Duke's senior class, the son declared that “he had made more friends here [at Duke] in one semester than he did in 14 years at Wisconsin”

An impetuous, outspoken man, Arthur Pearse gradually developed grievances about what he regarded as the excessive amount of teaching required at Duke, and he focused much of the blame on Few. Looking back as he wrote a short memoir in the early 1950s, Pearse was more understated and mellow than some of his letters to Few in the 1930s had been. In 1926 Few had said, Pearse recalled, that Purse would be one of about eight graduate professors who would teach only advanced-level courses and be free of administrative and other types of restraints. But upon arriving at Duke, Purse wrote, he found the reality quite different and eventually concluded that Few, "though a fine gentleman and in some respects a great man, was a dreamer."

That Pearse could be much more direct in making his point is suggested by a letter he wrote to a graduate student in zoology whom Duke had dropped and who wrote Pearse requesting a recommendation. After consulting his colleagues and finding that all agreed that they would not recommend the student, Pearse wrote to him: 'Personally, I feel that your trouble is that you are incompetent, unreliable, lazy, and rather proud of being an abnormal non-conformist in the present social scheme." Loyal and helpful to colleagues and conscientious students, Purse obviously suffered those he regarded as fools less gladly than more timid souls might.

Soon after the arrival of Pearse, Blomquist informed Wannamaker that he and Pearse had discussed the matter carefully and had agreed that the biology department should be divided into two separate departments. Failing that, and as a temporary arrangement, Bloinquist urged that Pearse be named chairman, since Blomquist perceived that the administration only nominally regarded Cunningham, whose interests were confined to his own field, as chairman. Wannamaker replied nervously that he did not think it wise even to discuss the matter at that time, though he promised to talk later with Blomquist." Nevertheless, in 1928 Pearse was named to chair the department, though he claimed not to want the job. Since Blomquist led in the matter of recruiting the botanists, he was in effect a sub- or associate chairman, without, however, such a title. Both wings of the department grew quickly and developed considerable strength by the time of World War II.

Even before Pearse arrived at Duke, Frank G. Hall, a physiologist who had received his doctorate at Wisconsin under the supervision of Pearse, had come in 1926 to join the zoologists. Described by Pearse as "a genius" when it came to understanding the operation of all sorts of intricate equipment, Hall was put in charge of aeromedical physiology at Wright Field during World War 11, and he transferred to the physiology department of Duke Medical School after the war." Other zoologists who joined the department in its formative stage were Irving E. Gray and George T. Hargitt, both of whom were appointed in 1930. Gray, another Wisconsin Ph.D. (1926) and a student of Pearse's, took cuts in both pay and rank to come to Duke From Tulane. An especially conscientious and effective teacher. Gray researched the blood and respiration of fish and the development of insects and succeeded Parse as chairman of the zoology department in 1940. Hargitt, a Harvard Ph.D. who had taught at Northwestern and Syracuse prior to coming to Duke, published numerous papers in cytology and protozoology, excelled at graduate-level teaching, and shared with Pearse the distinction among early zoologists at Duke of having his name starred in American Men of Science.

Another boost for biology at Duke came around 1930, when Pearse took the lead in launching and then long serving as editor of Ecological Monographs, a journal which Duke University Press published. Inspired by a tip from the editor of the Duke Press that, since it was already publishing two journals in other fields and a third was about to appear, a journal in the scientific area might be in order, Pearse went to work. He consulted with various leaders in the field of ecology and found that a journal which could carry longer studies than were suitable for the existing journal, Ecology, would be valuable for the field. Since the administrative leaders at Duke were eager to have the university and its young press do their share In the way of scholarly publication, Pearse in 1928 easily gained approval for the venture from Flowers (who first consulted Few and officials of the Duke Endowment). The appearance of the journal was delayed until early 1931 because Pearse took a leave of absence from early 1929 to the fall of 1930 to do research in Japan and elsewhere in Asia, with support from the Rockefeller Foundation. Receiving a copy of the first issue of Ecological Monographs shortly before Christmas, 1930, a prominent biologist at the University of Chicago congratulated Pearse on the Journal's general appearance and noted that "American ecology is now in a position to move forward in a dignified manner so far as research publication facilities are concerned."

Pearse died in 1956. The following is a compliation of two obituaries:

Dr. Arthur Sperry Pearse, distinguished zoologist and retired Duke University faculty member, died at a convalescent home here yesterday after several years of failing health. He was 79 years old.

An invalid since 1953, Dr. Pearse suffered from coronary heart disease. In accordance with his own wishes, a private committal service was held yesterday. The body will be cremated.

Immediate survivors are his widow, Mrs. Mary Oliver Lehmet Pearse of Durham: a daughter Mrs. William Henry Caufman of Roanoke, Va.; and a son, Dr Richard L. Pearse of Durham.

Internationally recognized as an outstanding figure in zoology, Pearse served as president of the American Society of Zoologists and other scientific groups during his long and distinguished career. He was the author of many books and papers including the well known textbook "Animal Ecology,"  “Homolothermism—the study of evenness of temperature in warm-blooded animals," and the Scientific Book Club selection "Migrations of Animals from Sea to Land," which has been translated into Japanese. He traveled widely, conducting scientific research in South America, Asia and Africa.

Dr. Pearse was born in Crete, Neb., on March 15, 1877. He received the B.S. and M.A. degrees from the University of Nebraska and the Ph.D. from Harvard. His academic training also included study at the London School of Tropical Medicine and at the University of Chicago. In 1941, he received the honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the University of Nebraska.

Dr. Pearse joined the Duke University faculty in 1927 and served until his retirement in 1948. Earlier he had taught at the University of Wisconsin, Harvard University, the University of the Philippines and other institutions. He served as visiting professor at Kelo University in Tokyo, Japan,during 1929-30.

In 1932, Dr. Pearce and a party of other scientists explored the underground waterholes, called cenotes, of Yucatan, Mexico, and made a detailed study of animal life there. Afterward, Dr. Pearse wrote that, contrary to a previous belief, all of the cenotes were fresh-water pools. The water surface of the pools, he found, averaged sixty feet below the earth's surface, while the pools themselves were sometimes as much as 170 feet deep. The water in the pools he described , as "extraordinarily clear," but he said that the party's exploration had been hampered bats and motmot birds. In some cases large catfish were found in small, apparently isolated pools, leading to the belief that subterranean connections between the pools existed. Near the sea, Dr. Pearse wrote, animal life resembled that of the ocean.

A specialist in parasitology and ecology. Dr. Pearse founded the Duke University Marine Laboratory at Beaufort, and served as its director from 1938-45. He edited scientific publication "Ecological Monographs" for a number of years.

Dr. Pearse was president of the American Society of Zoologists in 1944, of the American Society of Ecologists in 1925, of the Assn. of Southeastern Biologists in 1942, and of the North Carolina Academy of Science in 1950. Among his other professional memberships were the American Society of Naturalists and American Society of Parasitologists.

Duke University vice president Paul M. Gross. a long-time associate and colleague of Dr. Pearse,said:

"The university community has just suffered the loss of one of its most outstanding and colorful figures in the death of Prof. Arthur Sperry Pearse. During the more than a quarter of a century of his service as a member of the staff, and Chairman of the Department of Zoology, Dr. Pearse, more than most men, made an outstanding contribution to the development of the then young university in its most formative years.

"Dr. Pearse's reputation as a scientist in his chosen field of Ecology reached far beyond the university and this immediate region, to both the national and international level. His life and work were in the tradition of the great pioneers of biological science, such as Darwin, Huxley and Agassiz. In this spirit he founded and was for many years Director of the Duke Marine Laboratory and his own investigations carried him to many quarters of the globe, including remote corners of tile Far East, the tropical rain forests and cenotes of Central America and the outposts of civilization in Africa. The loss is not only one to Duke University, of which he was such a vital party, but to the great world of international scientific endeavor which, through men of his type, is able to transcend differences of race and kind and the turmoil of political strife between nations."


  • Submitted by wallace L. Bowling on Sunday, June 1, 2014 - 3:26pm

    I would love to get a copy of Robert Durden's book "The Launching of Duke University". How? Anyway,my first job out of high school was in the Zoology Department at Duke. I was hired by Dr. I.E. Gray to be the animal room caretaker. Dr. Pearse died in 1956. I had been in the Zoology Department since September, 1955. So, I didn't really know Dr. Pearse. But I remember a large portrait of him hanging on a wall in the conference room on the second floor of the Biology Building and there was much praise given to Dr. Pearse by members of the Zoology Department who knew him. It was through members of the Zoology Department at Duke, such as Dr. E.C. Horn and Dr. Calvin L. Ward that I quit the job and started to college at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Without the encouragement of these two wonderful men and others in the Zoology Department, I never would have gone beyond the animal room in the Zoology Department. I loved the people in the Zoology Department but the job was something else in those days with no such thing as large plastic bags to dump the wood shavings when I cleaned the rats and rabbit cages. The flies practically covered everything.

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