Edward Hitchcock and the first “tree of life”


250px-Edward_HitchcockEdward Hitchcock (24 May 1793 – 27 Feb 1864) was an American geologist and the third President of Amherst College (1845–1854). In 1821 he was ordained as a Congregationalist pastor and served as pastor of the Congregational Church in Conway, Massachusetts, 1821-25. He left the ministry to become Professor of Chemistry and Natural History at Amherst College. He held that post from 1825 to 1845, serving as Professor of Natural Theology and Geology from 1845 until his death in 1864.

He tried to reconcile science and religion, focusing on Geology. His major work in this area was The Religion of Geology and Its Connected Sciences (Boston, 1851). In this book, he explained that vast timespans during which the earth was formed do not contradict the first chapters of Genesis.


Paleontogical Chart in Hitchcock’s Elementary Geology

He inserted a paleontological chart in his Elementary Geology (1840). It shows a branching diagram of the plant and animal kingdom against a geological background. He referred to it as a tree. This ‘tree of life’ is the earliest known version that incorporates paleontological and geological information. Whereas Lamarck, Chambers, Bronn, Darwin, and Haeckel saw some form of transmutation as the mechanism that created their “trees of life,” Hitchcock, like his contemporaries Agassiz and Miller, who also produced “trees of life,” saw a Deity as the agent of change. The “tree of life” chart is present in all editions between 1840 and 1859. After Darwin (1859) published his Origin of Species, a tree of life image was generally interpreted as an evolutionary tree. In the 1860 edition of Elementary Geology Hitchcock dropped the chart. In 1863 Hitchcock wrote an article in which he refuted Darwin’s theory of natural selection.


A former lake, that once filled the Connectictut river basin, is named for him, as is one of the mountains located there.


Three flowers: Monkey Flower, Arrowhead, Orchid, from Herbarium parvum, pictum, by Orra White Hitchcock, Deerfield Academy Archives

Orra White Hitchcock (1796-1863 ) should be known not only as his wife, but also as an artist and scientist in her own right. Orra made hundreds and hundreds of illustrations for Edward’s scientific publications, including detailed landscapes of the Connecticut River Valley for his Massachusetts geological survey volumes, as well as striking custom designed charts that illustrated his local discoveries and his classroom lectures.  She made beautiful drawings of native flowers and grasses and delicate watercolors of small local mushrooms.  Her work is a remarkable chronicle of our scenic and botanically and geologically diverse valley. [1]

Also one of her daughters, Emily, became a botanical artist.

[1]  Daria D’Arienzo, Orra White Hitchcock’s Life, Art and the Connecticut River Valley 

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