William Morton Wheeler

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William Morton Wheeler
File:William Morton Wheeler.jpg
Born March 19, 1865
Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Died April 19, 1937(1937-04-19) (aged 72)
Cambridge, Massachusetts
Nationality American
Fields Entomologist, Myrmecologist
Institutions Harvard University
American Museum of Natural History
Influenced E. O. Wilson[1]
Notable awards Daniel Giraud Elliot Medal (1922)
Leidy Award (1931)[2]

William Morton Wheeler (March 19, 1865 – April 19, 1937) was an American entomologist, myrmecologist and Harvard professor.

Early life

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.


As a taxonomist, Wheeler was responsible for the descriptions of many species, Pogonomyrmex maricopa, the most venomous insect in the world, being among them. Professor Wheeler was curator of invertebrate zoology in the American Museum of Natural History in 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 whom 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.

For his work, Ants of the American Museum Congo Expedition, Wheeler was awarded the Daniel Giraud Elliot Medal from the National Academy of Sciences in 1922.[3] 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.

His work includes 467 titles.[4]

Among his students include C. T. Brues, A. L. Melander, C. L. Metcalf, T. D. Mitchell, O. E. Plath, George Salt, Alfred C. Kinsey, George C. Wheeler, Frank M. Carpenter, William S. Creighton, Neal A. Weber, J. G. Myers, William M. Mann, Marston Bates and Philip J. Darlington.[5]



  1. Lenfield, Spencer. "Ants through the Ages". Harvard Magazine. Wheeler’s work strongly influenced the teenage Wilson, who recalls, “When I was 16 and decided I wanted to become a myrmecologist, I memorized his book.”<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. Lua error in Module:Citation/CS1/Identifiers at line 47: attempt to index field 'wikibase' (a nil value).
  3. "Daniel Giraud Elliot Medal". National Academy of Sciences. Retrieved 16 February 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Carpenter 1938
  5. Charlotte Sleigh (2 February 2007). Six Legs Better: A Cultural History of Myrmecology. JHU Press. p. 71. ISBN 978-0-8018-8445-0.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>


  • Carpenter, Frank M. (1938): William Morton Wheeler. Isis 28(2): 421-423.
  • Parker, George Howard (1938): Biographical Memoir of William Morton Wheeler. National Academy of Sciences Biographical Memoirs 19: 201-241. PDF (contains full bibliography)
  • Evans, Mary A. and Howard E. (1999). William Morton Wheeler, Biologist. New York: iUniverse. ISBN 1-58348-312-8.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>