Skip to content

Colin S. Pittendrigh

Colin S. Pittendrigh

Other license.

Early Life

Colin S. Pittendrigh

In Trinidad

Colin S. Pittendrigh (1918-1996) was a Tynesider, born in Whatley Bay, England and educated at the University of Durham. During World War II, his scientific career was launched in an unexpected way. The British Government assigned him to duty in Trinidad, to explore ways of protecting troops from malarial infection. As an employee of the Rockefeller Foundation there, he launched investigations that eventually came to embrace the distribution and evolution of Bromeliads, their ecological relationships with the Anopheline mosquitoes that serve as malaria vectors, their rhythmic diurnal activity - a forerunner of his lifelong interest in biological clocks - and the epidemiology of the disease itself. These studies resulted in a series of papers published after the war, when Pittendrigh had come to the United States and begun Ph.D. studies at Columbia under the great evolutionary geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky. Much later, the Trinidad years came back to life in a series of Human Biology lectures that some four thousand Stanford students heard, and an astonishing proportion actually remember.

Princeton University

When he had finished at Columbia in 1947, Pittendrigh accepted a faculty appointment at Princeton. There he began a remarkable series of experiments on the nature of biological time-keeping - first establishing that in a variety of organisms, activity and other periodicities of about 24 hours were innate and not, as had been thought by many scientists, driven by some environmental signal. His research combined innovative theory with ingenious experiment, and the thread of his work continued despite conflicting demands and several moves. He explored in beautiful detail the properties of the internal pacemaker, and its entrainment by the diurnal cycle of light and darkness, developing an oscillator model which he used to generate and test further hypotheses. A self-described Darwinian clock-watcher, he is universally acknowledged as the founder of “circadian” biology. He viewed these rhythms as a basic adaptation that enabled organisms on a 24-hour planet to program their activities effectively, and his findings have proved basic to our present understanding of human sleep and wakefulness, hibernation and celestial navigation in animals, and a host of other phenomena not excluding the jet-lag from which he himself occasionally complained. His work won him election to the National Academy of Sciences and to fellowship in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

His scientific interests were not confined to biological rhythms. The basic biology course he developed at Princeton painted on a broad evolutionary canvas, and with the great paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson he wrote a remarkable introductory textbook whose title - appropriately - was simply: “Life.”

Pitt was not only a scholar and teacher of the very first rank; he practiced good academic citizenship wherever he was. At Princeton he served as Dean of the Graduate School. Expansion of the Graduate School continued in the 1960s under physicist Hamilton, dean from 1958 to 1965, and under biologist Pittendrigh, who took over when Hamilton resigned because of ill health. A magnificent gift of $35 million for the Woodrow Wilson School permitted the appointment of additional faculty and a marked increase in the number of graduate students preparing for careers in public and international affairs. In other areas, new Ph.D. programs were begun in anthropology, astrophysics, biochemical sciences, comparative literature, East Asian studies, and statistics, as well as, in such interdisciplinary programs as the history and philosophy of science.

Applications for admission increased sharply, and after the successful launching of Sputnik, federal funding for graduate fellowships increased substantially, particularly in science and engineering. Similar aid for students in the humanities and social sciences was provided in a number of ways, notably by the Ford Foundation's liberal financing of the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship Program and by federal fellowships provided by the National Defense Education Act. Increased housing needs were filled, for single students by the construction in 1963 of the Procter and Compton Quadrangles, just west of the original Graduate College, and for a growing number of married students, by the erection in 1966 of the Lawrence Apartments.

Under a policy of controlled expansion, enrollment under Dean Hamilton reached 1,150. It continued to grow under Dean Pittendrigh, reaching 1,440 before he resigned in 1969 to accept appointment as professor of biology at Stanford.

Stanford University

Colin S. Pittendrigh

Out West

At Stanford he helped found the Program in Human Biology - in which connection he held the Bing Professorship. Later he agreed to lead the first Committee on the Professoriate, a task that established the basic road-map for faculty status at Stanford. Later still he changed chairs, relinquishing Bing for Miller and becoming the Director of the Hopkins Marine Station. In that role he served for eight years, during which the Station added new faculty appointments, new facilities, and a much enhanced reputation.

At Hopkins, Pittendrigh had a powerful impact on the development of Monterey Bay as an important marine science community. Arriving in the wake of a critical visiting committee report, he set eagerly to the work of rejuvenation. He helped to fan the interest of David and Lucille Packard and their family in the development of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and shepherded the transfer of the Stanford-owned Hovden Cannery to help make that venture possible. He later added his enthusiasm and advice to the Aquarium as a Trustee. And the warmth of his ties to the Monterey Peninsula survives him in the Friends of the Hopkins Marine Station, the group he founded that continues to provide vital support to the Station today.

The collateral activities of a rich academic career absorbed a great deal of the life Pittendrigh spent outside the laboratory and the lecture hall. He had an outstanding list of doctoral students and post-doctoral fellows - several of whom now comprise a second leadership generation in the field he founded. Much earlier, he chaired a National Academy committee on Mars exploration, and then served as a science advisor to the Administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. He was a winner of the Alexander von Humboldt Prize and a Guggenheim Fellowship, a President of the American Society of Naturalists, and Vice-president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.


Stanford Memorial Resolution

Leitch p. 227

Other References:


Princeton University Library

Article in Nature

Obituary from Stanford

Obituary in NY Times