G. Kingsley Noble and the Huyck Preserve

G. Kingsley Noble

(September 20, 1894-December 9, 1940)


Renowned American herpetologist G. Kingsley Noble (1938) was a member of the Huyck Preserve's first scientific advisory committee (photo by Margaret Bourke-White for the American Museum of Natural History in New York City)

It took a community—of biologists, naturalists, and residents of the hamlet of Rensselaerville, N.Y.—to “raise” the Edmund Niles Huyck Preserve’s biological research station. One of the renowned scientists involved in the station’s early childhood in the 1930s was G. (Gladwyn) Kingsley Noble. Noble was an eminent herpetologist (an expert in amphibians and reptiles) at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York City and a member of the Huyck Preserve’s first scientific advisory committee.

Noble’s career at AMNH began in 1917. First he was an assistant curator; in 1923 he became the chair of the Department of Herpetology, which was later renamed the Department of Herpetology and Experimental Biology. He later served as chair of two departments—Herpetology and Animal Behavior—until his death in 1940. During his tenure, the herpetological collections doubled, from 50,000 specimens in 1924 to 110,000 specimens in 1940. Noble’s nearly 200 publications remain highly influential today, especially those on comparative frog anatomy and systematics. (http://research.amnh.org/vz/herpetology/about-department)

Okay, so the above is rather dry. I did a little more digging on the Web and came up with some interesting tidbits.

On a 1920s expedition to the island of Santo Domingo in the West Indies, Noble and his wife used flashlights and cameras to take nighttime photographs of frogs and other reptiles in their natural habitats. Noble debunked a myth that the weird barking sounds coming from the forests at night were caused by ghosts. Turns out that the eerie noises came from a species of tree frog that barks like a dog and squeals like a pig. The Nobles brought back a large collection of photographs, preserved specimens and skins, and nearly 40 live horned lizards (the largest lizards in the world and then believed to be direct descendants of giant prehistoric reptiles), a huge tree frog, and even some of the barking frogs. (Popular Science, April 1923, page 44)

In 1926 Noble debunked another “myth.” This one had to do with the controversial Lamarkian theory of inheritance (in which an organism can pass on characteristics that it acquired during its lifetime to its offspring). Most scientists believed in Mendelian theory, the idea that only inherited traits could be passed on. But neither theory explained why there are sometimes random variations (now known as genetic mutations). Austrian biologist Paul Kammerer claimed that he had evidence to support Lamarkian theory. In 1918 he showed that small dark-colored pads (part of the clasping structure used in mating on the front feet of the males of some toad species) could be induced environmentally in another toad species and afterwards inherited by the male offspring. But Noble examined one of Kammerer’s museum specimens of an experimental animal and discovered that India ink had been used to simulate the pads. Noble promptly published his discovery of Kammerer’s fraudulent findings in the prestigious journal Nature (August 7, 1926). Kammerer insisted he had not falsified his data, but six weeks later he committed suicide.

Today, some say that just before Noble’s visit to Austria, Kammerer’s experiments may have been tampered with by a Nazi sympathizer at the University of Vienna (Arthur Koestler, The Case of the Midwife Toad, 1971).

In 1938, Cornell biologist William Hamilton who had been commissioned by the Huyck Preserve’s board of directors to determine whether the Preserve could support scientific research (he said it could and recommended that the research station be established) invited Noble to serve on the Preserve’s first scientific advisory committee. In the summer of 1939, Noble gave a lecture—on frogs—at the Preserve. Unfortunately, the following year he died suddenly, at the age of 47, from a streptococcus infection in his throat. Today, such an infection could have been treated with penicillin or another antibiotic. Who knows what further contributions Noble would have made to the Huyck Preserve had he lived.



About L. Stephenson Carter

L. Stephenson Carter is a science writer/editor and was also on the board of directors of the E.N. Huyck Preserve in Rensselaerville, NY.
This entry was posted in Huyck Preserve, Natural History and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to G. Kingsley Noble and the Huyck Preserve

  1. Pingback: The Early Years of a Biological Field Station | lscnews

  2. Pingback: Table of Contents | lscnews

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