Spiderman from Yale. Essay on the biography and scientific activities of Alexander Petrunkevitch

In the “Creators” project, T-invari­ant togeth­er with RASA (Russian-American Science Association) with the sup­port of the Richard Lounsbery Foundation, con­tin­ues to pub­lish a series of bio­graph­i­cal essays about peo­ple from the Russian Empire who made sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tions to world sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy. Arachnologist and biol­o­gist Alexander Petrunkevitch was born in Pliski, in the Chernigov Governorate, but most of his life he worked at Yale University. He became espe­cial­ly famous for his research on arachnids.

Alexander Ivanovich Petrunkevitch (Courtesy, Yale University Office of Public Information)

“Our entire dis­trict rep­re­sent­ed a piece of that out­back that stretched to all ends of Russia and made no excep­tion for the very moth­er of Russian cities, which was in great des­o­la­tion.” Alexander Ivanovich Petrunkevitch will write these lines in 1934 - after the rev­o­lu­tion, hav­ing become a famous sci­en­tist. However, he became an emi­grant long before the Bolsheviks came to pow­er (how­ev­er, he also had no sym­pa­thy for the new government).

Liberalism is in the blood

The father of the future biol­o­gist was Ivan Ilyich Petrunkevitch — a clas­sic Russian lib­er­al of the late 19th cen­tu­ry. He was a zem­st­vo activist from the Chernigov province, advo­cat­ed for the devel­op­ment of local self-gov­ern­ment and the intro­duc­tion of a con­sti­tu­tion. “The strug­gle between the state and the extreme is enter­ing a new phase and promis­es to take on a char­ac­ter so mer­ci­less that not only the old regime, which has lost all mean­ing and is unable to even under­stand the changes tak­ing place in the world, will be under threat, but also our very home­land, which has been steadi­ly get­ting clos­er to Western European cul­ture and civ­i­liza­tion for two cen­turies” — he wrote.

Petrunkevitch Sr. sought to unite mod­er­ate polit­i­cal forces. He was fright­ened by the rad­i­cal­ism of the Narodnaya Volya (People’s Will) mem­bers, who did not dis­dain polit­i­cal mur­ders in the name of the high ideals of free­dom (and even­tu­al­ly made a suc­cess­ful attempt on the life of Alexander II him­self). Ivan Ilyich tried to talk to the Narodnaya Volya mem­bers, con­vinc­ing them to aban­don the ter­ror. However, his con­cil­ia­to­ry ini­tia­tives did not yield results, as did his pro­pos­als to the authorities.

Leaders of the Liberation Union: I. I. Petrunkevitch, V. I. Vernadsky and D. I. Shakhovskoy

Being a mem­ber of the zem­st­vo assem­bly with the right of deci­sive vote (voice), one day at a meet­ing he made a speech about the need for a con­sti­tu­tion­al sys­tem. In it, he con­demned the ter­ror­ists, but sharply crit­i­cized the tsarist author­i­ties. The time for such speech­es turned out to be unfor­tu­nate: in 1878, lib­er­al reforms had already stalled, and the author­i­ties switched to the fight against rad­i­cals. For his speech, Petrunkevitch was exiled to the Perm province for six years under police supervision.

Revolt against repression and emigration

Alexander Ivanovich Petrunkevitch was born on December 12, 1875 in the fam­i­ly estate of Pliski, Bereznyansky dis­trict, Chernigov province. Sasha grew up as a ver­sa­tile boy: he made insect col­lec­tions (lat­er this would become the main hob­by of his life), dis­as­sem­bled and assem­bled var­i­ous instru­ments and engines, stud­ied the struc­ture of steam loco­mo­tives and oth­er mech­a­nisms (his friend was the son of Bromley, the founder of one of the largest engi­neer­ing com­pa­nies in the Russian Empire).

In 1894, Alexander entered Moscow University and quick­ly began to make progress in sci­ence. He pub­lished sev­er­al arti­cles on the embry­ol­o­gy of bee­tles of the Leaf Beetle fam­i­ly, the phys­i­ol­o­gy of diges­tion of cock­roach­es and oth­ers. In his free time, he wrote poet­ry under the pseu­do­nym Alexander Yan-Ruban and trans­lat­ed poet­ry into English.

After grad­u­at­ing from uni­ver­si­ty, the promis­ing young sci­en­tist became an assis­tant in prepa­ra­tion for a pro­fes­sor­ship under the super­vi­sion of zool­o­gist Alexander Tikhomirov. He worked on silk­worms and was known as a ret­ro­grade: in his youth he was a fol­low­er of Darwin’s ideas, but in his mature years he moved away from them and nev­er missed an oppor­tu­ni­ty to sar­cas­ti­cal­ly joke about “fash­ion­able” evo­lu­tion­ary theories.

In February-March 1899, the Russian Empire was gripped by stu­dent unrest. Protests began at St. Petersburg University: on the occa­sion of the university’s 80th anniver­sary, the admin­is­tra­tion post­ed an extreme­ly defi­ant mes­sage from the rec­tor, in which he threat­ened stu­dents with arrest and expul­sion from the cap­i­tal for actions dis­cred­it­ing the hon­our of their alma mater.

A flame quick­ly flared up from a spark: the rector’s solemn speech on the occa­sion of the anniver­sary was booed, and after this the crowd of cel­e­brat­ing stu­dents was dis­persed by the police, who feared spon­ta­neous riots. The next day, the stu­dents, embit­tered by this treat­ment, went on strike. The rec­tor respond­ed by call­ing the police to the uni­ver­si­ty, which only wors­ened the sit­u­a­tion: out­rage gripped an even larg­er part of the stu­dents, as well as some lib­er­al-mind­ed teachers.

Soon oth­er uni­ver­si­ties learned about the strike. An emis­sary from St. Petersburg stu­dent activists arrived in Moscow with an offer to sup­port them. A small orga­ni­za­tion­al meet­ing took place in the anatom­i­cal the­ater, which became known to the odi­ous “secret police” in charge of polit­i­cal inves­ti­ga­tion. Rector Dmitry Zernov, who sym­pa­thizes with the stu­dents, refused to hand over to the police the list of par­tic­i­pants in the gathering.

Student demon­stra­tion on October 18, 1905

Soon Zernov was removed, and his place was tak­en by Tikhomirov, who was loy­al to the author­i­ties. He imme­di­ate­ly began repres­sions: three stu­dents were expelled, three were put in a pun­ish­ment cell for three days, and four were rep­ri­mand­ed. An attempt to present the rec­tor with a peti­tion ask­ing him to can­cel this deci­sion also failed: the meet­ing was dis­persed by the police, and new expul­sions followed.

Petrunkevitch, out­raged by such actions, wrote a let­ter to the rec­tor, con­demn­ing his inhu­mane behav­ior and call­ing on him to hear the voic­es of the pro­test­ers. After such a speech, the scientist’s career was in jeop­ardy. Soon, in protest, Alexander Ivanovich left the uni­ver­si­ty and Russia, and set­tled in Freiburg, Germany.

Nutritious soil for genius

The University of Freiburg, one of the old­est in Germany, was once home to the free­thinker and oppo­nent of the Catholic Church, Erasmus of Rotterdam, his asso­ciate Balthasar Humbaier and oth­er intel­lec­tu­als. In addi­tion, there was a strong bio­log­i­cal school: one of the pro­fes­sors at that time was August Weismann. His the­o­ry about the absence of trans­mis­sion of acquired char­ac­ter­is­tics formed the basis of genet­ics, along with the ideas of Georg Mendel and the American biol­o­gist Hans Morgan. Later, Soviet Lysenkoites attacked Weismannism as a reac­tionary doctrine.

“My first acquain­tance with Weismann’s the­o­ries was caused by Timiryazev’s fierce attacks on them,” Petrunkevitch recalled. — Under the influ­ence of these attacks, I began to read every­thing relat­ed to the the­o­ries of epi­ge­n­e­sis and evo­lu­tion, in the hope of form­ing my own ideas about the val­ue of Weismann’s the­o­ries and the objec­tions raised against them by numer­ous promi­nent oppo­nents, includ­ing such names as Oscar Hertwig and Gerber Spencer. Gradually, I became imbued with admi­ra­tion, log­ic and clar­i­ty of Weismann’s con­struc­tive mind, the sin­cer­i­ty of his desire to find the right answers to the ques­tions that con­cern him.”

Petrunkevitch found in Weisman not only a teacher, but also a friend. Warm rela­tions between two sci­en­tists from dif­fer­ent gen­er­a­tions (they were sep­a­rat­ed by more than 40 years) con­tin­ued until the end of Weissman’s life. At the sug­ges­tion of the pro­fes­sor, Petrunkevitch began to study the cytol­ogy and embry­ol­o­gy of hon­ey bees. He proved that some bees (drones) are born from unfer­til­ized eggs, that is, through partheno­gen­e­sis. In the process, he per­fect­ed a method for stain­ing cyto­log­i­cal prepa­ra­tions using a phe­nol-based dye. “Petrunkevitch’s dye” began to be used in many lab­o­ra­to­ries around the world, since it kept the tis­sues of prepa­ra­tions soft for a long time.

August Weissman

Petrunkevitch’s suc­cess­es quick­ly reached his home­land. “As I heard, they said abroad about Weisman’s three assis­tants, that one of them sings, the oth­er dances, and the third works. This third was Petrunkevitch,” recalled Moscow University stu­dent Efimov. Less than a year lat­er, Alexander Ivanovich pre­pared a dis­ser­ta­tion, which he defend­ed in 1901, and lat­er took the posi­tion of a non-tenured teacher (pri­vat assis­tant professor).

It was dif­fi­cult to obtain a full-time pro­fes­sor­ship in Germany. But soon Petrunkevitch’s fate zigzagged again: he met an American woman, Wanda Harshthorn. Soon she became his wife, and the cou­ple moved to New Jersey, Wanda’s home­land. At first it was not pos­si­ble to find a suit­able aca­d­e­m­ic posi­tion, and Petrunkevitch used his own mon­ey to set up a small lab­o­ra­to­ry where he con­tin­ued his research.

At the same time, he worked as a cura­tor at the Natural History Museum. Studying the muse­um’s col­lec­tions, he pre­pared and pub­lished the 790-page “Catalog of Spiders of North, Central and South America with all the adja­cent islands, Greenland, Bermuda, the West Indies, Tierra del Fuego, Galapagos, etc.” He lat­er began teach­ing at Yale University, upon receiv­ing a pro­fes­sor­ship there in 1917.

For evolution and against revolution

Petrunkevitch was a mem­ber of the American Entomological Society and repeat­ed­ly spoke at its meet­ings with reports on the mor­phol­o­gy, phys­i­ol­o­gy and tax­on­o­my of arach­nids. He was attract­ed to the sys­tem­ati­za­tion of tax­o­nom­ic groups of arach­nids - but not so much for the sake of cre­at­ing con­ve­nient clas­si­fi­ca­tions, but for the search for pat­terns of evo­lu­tion­ary devel­op­ment of dif­fer­ent groups of organ­isms. “Systematics is the mir­ror of evo­lu­tion,” he said.

Petrunkevitch greet­ed the rev­o­lu­tion in Russia with a mix­ture of hope and skep­ti­cism. Being a lib­er­al, like his father, he did not trust rad­i­cal meth­ods of polit­i­cal strug­gle. On May 1, 1917, he attend­ed a meet­ing of the New York Economic Club along with politi­cian Elihu Root, a mem­ber of the com­mis­sion sent by the United States to estab­lish diplo­mat­ic rela­tions with the Provisional Government. Petrunkevitch warned Root that the posi­tion of the new gov­ern­ment in Russia was frag­ile, and it could eas­i­ly col­lapse. Root, how­ev­er, did not lis­ten to the scientist’s words.

After the Bolsheviks seized pow­er, Petrunkevitch crit­i­cized Trotsky’s con­clu­sion of a sep­a­rate peace. In an arti­cle for the Washington Post, he stat­ed that Trotsky was bribed by Germany, and such actions lead to a split in the coun­try and civ­il war. Later, he began to active­ly help emi­grants who fled from Russia: he found­ed the Federation of Russian Organizations in the USA, and was the rec­tor of the Russian Institute in New York, which pro­vid­ed assis­tance in train­ing Russian refugees.

Petrunkevitch “was not a one-sided genius” (words from his biog­ra­phy pub­lished by Yale University after his death). He pub­lished a col­lec­tion of poems, “Songs of Love and Sorrow,” the first trans­la­tion into Russian of Byron’s poem “Manfred,” trans­lat­ed English poet­ry into Russian and Russian poet­ry into English, and for the cen­te­nary of Pushkin’s death, he pub­lished prose trans­la­tions of sev­er­al of his poems.

Alexander Petrunkevitch with a spi­der from his collection

Petrunkevitch, known as Pete on the Yale cam­pus, was known as a warm man and a lit­tle eccen­tric — in a good way. In his home he kept an exten­sive col­lec­tion of spi­ders - some­times there were more than 180 “mag­nif­i­cent” — as he called them — live taran­tu­las. For some time, in the cen­ter of the room there was a cab­i­net con­tain­ing the bulk of the British Museum’s unique col­lec­tion of fos­sil arach­nids, giv­en on loan to him.

In this clut­tered, slight­ly creepy lab­o­ra­to­ry, Petrunkevitch held week­ly tea par­ties for many years. These meet­ings were known first as “Pete’s Tea Parties” and, after his retire­ment in 1944, as “Honorary Pete’s Tea Parties.” Teachers, stu­dents and out-of-town guests came to them to talk on a vari­ety of top­ics and drink strong Russian tea, pre­pared by Petrunkevitch on a Bunsen burner.

Petrunkevitch died in 1964 at the age of 88. Several species of insects were named in his hon­or — the Florida fresh­wa­ter mite Hydrozetes petrunk­e­vitchi, which lives on aquat­ic plants; the Mexican har­vest spi­der Ruaxphilos petrunk­e­vitchou, the mim­re­co­mor­phic (ant-like) spi­der Micaria petrunk­e­vitchi and the South American shrimp Peisos petrunkevitchi.

Author of the essay Anton SOLDATOV


Hutchinson C.E. Alexander Petrunkevitch (1875‒1964). Biographical mem­oir. Washington D.C.: National Academy of Science, 1991. Pp. 234‒248.

Obituary of Alexander Petrunkevitch in the New York Times

Petrunkevitch A.I. August Weismann: Personal Reminiscences. Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences. Vol. 18, No. 1 (January, 1963).

Petrunkevitch A.I. Separate peace means civ­il war in Russia. Washington post. 1917. Nov 9. P. 3.

Fando R.A. Alexander Ivanovich Petrunkevich – Russian American /​ R.A. Fando /​/​ History of sci­ence and Engineering. ‒ 2020. ‒ No. 3. ‒ pp. 40 – 47. 

Petrunkevitch, I. I. From the notes of a pub­lic fig­ure: Memoirs /​ Memoirs. /​/​ Archive of the Russian Revolution, pub­lished by I. V. Gessen M.: Terra, 1991. – 11. Volumes 21-22. – 1993.

Natural depart­ment of the Imperial Moscow University in the 90s of the 19th cen­tu­ry: a col­lec­tion of mem­oirs. – M.: RUSAINS, 2017.

Petrunkevitch I.I. From the notes of a pub­lic fig­ure. Memories. Prague: [B.I.], 1934. – 472 p.

Vasily Nikitin: Testimony in the case of Russian emi­gra­tion /​/​ Diaspora: New mate­ri­als. – T. 1. Paris; St. Petersburg: Athenaeum-Phoenix, 2001. – pp. 587-591.


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