William Keith Brooks (March 25, 1848 – November 12, 1908) was an American zoologist.
William K. Brooks. Credit: courtesy of the Johns Hopkins University.
Williams College, Williamstown, Massachusetts, United States
Brooks graduated from Williams College in 1870.
Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States
On June 1875, Brooks received his Ph.D. degree conferred at Harvard.
A graduate of Williams College in 1870, Brooks enrolled in the first Anderson School of Natural History on Penikese Island, Massachusetts, in the summer of 1873. There he met Louis Agassiz and at once developed the interest in marine organisms that was to determine the course of his career. He completed a thesis under Alexander Agassiz and, in June 1875, received his Ph.D. degree conferred at Harvard.
After receiving his third Ph.D. in 1875 conferred at Harvard, Brooks was then appointed associate in biology at the new Johns Hopkins University to serve under H. Newell Martin, who was himself fresh from graduate study in physiology at Cambridge with T. H. Huxley and Michael Foster. Martin and Brooks developed a major new venture in graduate education (modeled on the German university) that led the way in the vigorous growth of American biology during the last quarter of the century.
Much of Brooks’s contribution to this venture and the bulk of his research were accomplished at the Chesapeake Zoological Laboratory, a movable marine station established each summer between 1878 and 1906 at various points along the Atlantic coast and in the West Indies. He spent his entire academic career at Johns Hopkins, rising in 1894 to the biology department chairmanship, a position he retained until his death.
Brooks’s many papers and especially his major book, The Foundations of Zoology, are laden with rhetorical speculation which, as Brooks cautioned his readers, might at first seem obscure but “may, on review, be found consistent and intelligible.”
(Volume 10, Part 4)1905
Brooks was a descriptive evolutionary morphologist with a strong bias toward studies of whole organisms in their natural environment. A keen observer and an indefatigable amateur philosopher, he was among the late nineteenth-century morphologists who, accepting the transforming power of function in the tradition of Cuvier, added the new insights permitted by the Darwinian concept of the organism as a historical being. Organic form viewed both as a living record of its own ancestry and as dynamically adaptable to new circumstances of life lay at the center of Brooks’s thought.
For him, life was an adjustment, or it was nothing; fitness, the adaptive response, was paramount: “The thing to be explained is not the structure of organisms, but the fitness of this structure for the needs of living things in the world in which they pass their lives.” For him, nature was a language that a rational being may read. His reading led him to believe with Aristotle that the “essence of a living thing is not what it is made of or what it does, but why it does it” - in a word, its purpose.
In thus withholding judgment on analytical, reductionist approaches, Brooks became unable to look beyond the confines of his own generation, and he did not participate in the transformation of morphology from a comparative to causal science. Yet his more noteworthy students were somehow stimulated to share fully in that transformation; four of them - E. B. Wilson, T. H. Morgan, E. G. Conklin, and R. G. Harrison - laid the groundwork of much of modern cytology, embryology, and genetics.
In both their substance and their manner of presentation, Brooks’s descriptions of the embryology, morphology, and life habits of marine invertebrates were memorable for their scope, their meticulousness, their wealth of illustration, their evolutionary insight, and their charming literary style.
Brooks was a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Philosophical Society, Academy of Natural Science of Philadelphia, the Boston Society of Natural History, the Maryland Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Society of Zoologists, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the Royal Microscopical Society.
Shy, retiring, and gentle, Brooks inherited from his mother artistic skill, a studious, idealistic nature, and a dislike for the obvious and the trivial.
Physical Characteristics: Even from his early days, Brooks was afflicted by a congenital heart defect that became progressively more limiting in later life.