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Beckel, Annamarie L. / Breaking new waters : a century of limnology at the University of Wisconsin
Special issue (1987)

Beginnings,   pp. 1-10

Page 2

Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters2 
 Birge was among the first to emphasize individual laboratory work by students
as a method of teaching. Although he initiated research courses for students,
Birge found little time for his own research on Cladocera. 
"It is significant of the state which the University had then reached
that no thought entered my head, or that of anyone else, that I should apply
part of this time in research. Nor was there any thought of developing zoological
teaching to the stage of graduate and professional courses. I decided to
offer advanced undergraduate courses which should give a better scientific
training to future students of medicine. . . . This teaching fully occupied
my time for a decade, 1881-1891, and during those years there was little
or no work on lakes. . . . During those years my interest in lakes and their
inhabitants was not dead but was dormant." 
E. A. Birge, 1936, "A House Half Built." 
 Birge's first attempts at research were concerned primarily with the anatomy
and systematics of Cladocera and were not really limnological. He has started
studying Daphnia at Williams College and had continued his research at Harvard.
"When the time came for a thesis Daphnia came to the fore again. I used
study of its anatomy and I worked up the group of microcrustacea to which
it belongs as represented in Fresh Pond at Cambridge and later at Madison,
especially in Lake Wingra. The resulting thesis was a very poor one, judged
by any modern standards, even the most charitable, but it was the first attempt
in this country to give a systematic account of the group of crustacea."
E. A. Birge, 1936, "A House Half Built." 
 He became an authority on the taxonomy and ecology of Cladocera, as was
recognized later when he was asked to write a chapter on Cladocera for H.
B. Ward and G. C. Whipple's Freshwater Biology (1918). Prior to that monograph,
Birge had written just four major papers dealing with the systematics of
Cladocera, (1879, 1892, 1893, 1910b). 
 About the turn of the century his research took a distinct limnological
turn, not so much by design as by accident. Birge had encountered a short
paper by France' (1894) on diel migration, which demonstrated that in Lake
Balaton in Hungary, the zooplankton come to the surface at night and do not
descend to greater depths until about dawn, where they remain until early
afternoon (Frey 1963). Birge was interested in determining how extensive
the migration might be in Lake Mendota, a deeper lake than Balaton. To sample
discrete water depths, he designed a vertical tow net that could be opened
at any depth by means of a messenger and then closed again by a second messenger
after pulling the net through a desired thickness of water (Frey 1963). Birge
and his two senior thesis students, 0. A. Olson and H. P. Harder, collected
microcrustacea from different depths and counted the numbers of each species.
This procedure was repeated every three hours, day and night, for several
groups of days in July and August and also later in the year. When they had
counted the crustacea in all the catches, they found no evidence of vertical
migration at dusk or dawn, but Birge and his students did find an unexpected
vertical distribution of the plankton. 
"No one could have had limnology less in mind than I did when in 1894
I started
to work out, by quantitative methods, the annual story of the microcrustacea
of Lake Mendota. . . for the best authority tells us that the word limnology
did not appear in English until more than a year after our work began. 
 "I meant to make a thorough study, so I selected a primary station
half way out to Picnic Point, where the water is about sixty feet deep. This
depth was to be divided into six levels of ten feet each; the crustacea were
to be collected separately from each level, and the different 

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