S2A3 Biographical Database of Southern African Science




Sedgwick, Prof Adam (zoology)

Born: 28 September 1854, Norwich, England.
Died: 27 February 1913, London, England.

Adam Sedgwick, British zoologist, studied at Trinity College, Cambridge, from 1874, obtained a first class in the natural science tripos in 1877 and was awarded the degree Master of Arts (MA). He remained at Cambridge as a demonstrator in embryology, doing research on the development of the kidney in chicken embryos with the embryologist F.M. Balfour, and then on his own on kidney development also in other organisms. This work formed the subject of his first five papers. In 1882 he was appointed lecturer, and in 1890 reader in animal morphology. During his early years as lecturer he edited the six volumes of Studies from the Morphological Laboratory in the University of Cambridge (1884). In 1892 he married Laura H.E. Robinson, with whom he had three children.

Sedgwick visited the Cape Colony in 1883 and commenced his investigations on the embryology of the genus Peripatus. (These terrestrial animals belong to the phylum Arthropoda - which includes insects, crustaceans, arachnids, etc, - but have a number of worm-like features). He collected over 300 live specimens around Cape Town. Their study led to a number of important papers on the embryology and systematics of the group, for which he will probably be best remembered. These include a series of four papers on "The development of Peripatus capensis" in the Quarterly Journal of Microscopical Science (1885-1888) and "A monograph on the species and distribution of the genus Peripatus (Guilding)" in the same journal (1888, 63p). Among others he separated the smaller Cape species, Peripatus balfouri from the only local species then recognised, P. capensis. (Many more South African species have since been found). During the next few years he published several more papers on the genus, including a "Note on a Peripatus from Natal" in the Proceedings of the Cambridge Philosophical Society (1892). Other papers dealt with the development of various other invertebrates.

Sedgwick stopped doing hands-on research in the mid-1890's, when he started to address theoretical questions. He attacked cell theory, the theory of recapitulation (or biogenetic law) and the germ-layer theory, and challenged current views on the evolution of multicellular organisms from protozoans and the nature of variation and heredity. One of his important achievements during this phase of his life was his influential Student's textbook of zoology (1898-1909, 3 vols). He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1886 and was a Fellow and tutor at Trinity College from 1897 to 1907. For many years he edited the Quarterly Journal of the Microscopical Society. In 1908 he was president of the Cambridge Philosophical Society. He became a member of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1880, was president of Section D (Zoology) in 1899, and by 1905 served on three of its zoological committees. In 1907 he was appointed professor of zoology and comparative anatomy at the University of Cambridge, but resigned in 1909 to become professor of zoology at the new Imperial College of Science and Technology in London. Though he had a quick temper he inspired affection in both colleagues and students.


List of sources:
British Association for the Advancement of Science. Report of the seventy-fifth meeting... South Africa, 1905.

National Union Catalogue, pre-1956 imprints. London: Mansell, 1968-1980.

Oxford dictionary of national biography. Oxford University Press, 2004.

Purcell, W.F. Notes on South African land and freshwater invertebrates, exclusive of molluscs and insects. In W. Flint & J.D.F. Gilchrist (eds), Science in South Africa (pp. 175-181). Cape Town: T. Maskew Miller, 1905.

Royal Society of London. Catalogue of scientific papers [1800-1900]. London: Royal Society, 1867-1925.


Compiled by: C. Plug


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