November 8, 2009

[List updated to include Applied Biology (1911) and Practical Biology (1916)]

Google has now digitized all of the most important and popular American high school biology textbooks published before 1923. Though this cut off date, dictated by current copyright law, prevents easy review of a few significant “pre-Scopes” textbooks – specifically Henry R. Linville’s Biology of Man and Other Organisms (1923), George W. Hunter’s New Essentials of Biology (1923), Gilbert H. Trafton’s Biology of Home and Community (1923), Peabody and Hunt’s Biology and Human Welfare (1924) and Benjamin C. Gruenberg’s Biology and Human Life (1925) – the books available offer a fascinating window on Progressive Era values and conceits.

[On edit: As of January 1, 2019, copyrighted material from 1923 is now in the public domain. Links above for Liville, Hunter (1923) and Trafton are now live.]

Elements of Biology
Hunter, George W. 1907. New York: American Book Company.

This is the granddaddy of high school biology textbooks, one of the first, if not the first to link separate courses of botany, zoology and human physiology together in one year-long course. Make note of the short paragraph that closes the section on zoology (p. 316). “Man’s Place in Nature,” used here as little more than a bridging mechanism, would be developed by Hunter into a long defense of evolution in A Civic Biology (1914). The device would be adopted by Truman J. Moon in Biology for Beginners (1921), deployed both as a defense of organic evolution and as an introduction to a biologized view of cultural evolution.

Applied Biology
Bigelow, Maurice A. and Anna N. Bigelow. 1911. New York: The MacMillan Company.

An excellent summation of evolution and heredity concludes this difficult to categorize 1911 textbook. Though the title implies application, a harbinger of the harsh economic biologies which would soon follow, Bigelow and Bigelow’s book is more an early unity of life text. Eugenics is not mentioned. Human physiology is strongly tied to general animal physiology through analogy, mostly to the frog. How biology “applies” to “man” is suggested only in the final paragraph, and even there rather obliquely.

Essentials of Biology
Hunter, George W. 1911. New York: American Book Company.

Though Hunter’s third textbook, A Civic Biology, (below), is famous for its starring role in the Scopes trial, this, his second textbook, is a far more important work. It was in Essentials that Hunter created a narrative for biology, establishing its progressive purpose, which would mature in his next book into a full fledged embrace and promotion of eugenics.

Elementary Biology
Peabody, James E. and Arthur Hunt. 1912. New York: The Macmillan Company.

Peabody and Hunt’s first textbook is a throwback to Hunter’s Elements, but with even less bridging material between the main topics of botany, zoology and human physiology. In fact each section is independently paginated, which makes the index quite difficult to use.

A Civic Biology
Hunter, George W. 1914. New York: American Book Company.

Perhaps the most famous textbook ever. A Civic Biology, which is commonly referred to as Civic Biology, is often held up as the standard against which we measure the impact of the Scopes trial on the treatment of the topic of evolution in high school textbooks. It is true that Hunter’s 1914 edition used the word ‘evolution,’ while the 1926 revision, titled A New Civic Biology, did not (See Adam Shapiro’s excellent article on this topic).

But note that Hunter’s description of evolution primarily serves as a bridge between sections on zoology and human physiology. Importantly, his separate discussion of Darwin and natural selection later in the book sets up a discussion of the conscious “improvement”‘ of plants, animals … and humans through a program of eugenics. The text starting on page 263, including its discussion of low-born families under the heading “Parasitism and its Cost to Society,” is particularly hard on the modern ear.

Practical Biology
Smallwood, W. M., Ida L. Reveley and Guy A. Bailey. 1916. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Foundational edition of the phylogenetic textbook destined to dominate the market in the 1930s when revised under the title New Biology (also issued in an expanded format in 1929 as New General Biology). Smallwood’s textbooks always featured a Darwin biography, but this early edition, published years ahead of the anti-evolution movement of the early 1920s, includes references to both Darwin’s Origins and Descent, and explicitly describes the scientist as the “founder of the Darwinian theory of evolution” (after p. 30). However, Practical Biology, like the many editions of New Biology that would follow, provided a weak presentation of evolution. This book introduced evolution (p. 123) in an odd Haeckelian way through analogy with the development of a frog from egg through tadpole to adult. In New Biology, first published at the height of the anti-evolution movement, this description would be truncated and made even more nonsensical.

Civic Biology
Hodge, Clifton F. and Jean Dawson. 1918. Boston: Ginn and Company.

Hodge and Dawson’s textbook echoes the themes established by Hunter. It directly links evolution to eugenics and boldly promotes the critical need to eliminate the “feeble-minded” (along with the “epileptic”) from the gene pool. Interesting. Chilling.

Elementary Biology
Gruenberg, Benjamin C. 1919. Boston: Ginn and Company.

Benjamin Gruenberg’s textbook is a remarkable exception to the progressionist, pro-eugenic texts of Hunter, Hodge and Atwood. Gruenberg was a socialist with little affection for the brutal individualistic “survival of the fittest” ideology trumpeted by his colleagues. His far less biologized view of human nature and faith in the power of cooperation over competition, led to a much softer, much more optimistic presentation of the ‘meaning’ of evolution. However, his ideology would slide a bit toward the mean in his next textbook, Biology and Human Life (1925).

Biology for Beginners
Moon, Truman J. 1921 (1924). New York: Henry Holt and Company

Truman J. Moon’s 1921 Biology for Beginners is both one of the most important and least inventive textbooks published prior to the Scopes trial. It is most important simply because it survived, and continues to survive. Biology for Beginners, which became simply Biology in 1938, and then Modern Biology in 1947, remains today one of the most popular textbooks in the country. But it has always been a follower, ready to exploit any commercially viable trend, a half-decade or so after that trend had been established.

Biology for Beginners owes its basic chapter and topic arrangement to Hunter’s first textbook, Elements of Biology. Onto this skeleton, cribbing from his competitors, Moon tacked chapters covering personal health, civic biology, economic biology, and critically, cultural evolution. As Hunter had in Civic Biology in 1914, Moon introduced the topic of evolution at the end of his section on mammals, and used it as a bridging device to link zoology with human physiology. However, Moon extended to a full chapter his discussion of cultural evolution, a topic that had been covered by Hunter in a single paragraph.

Civic and Economic Biology
Atwood, William H. 1922. Philadelphia: P. Blakiston’s Son & Co.

Atwood’s text, along with Linville’s Biology of Man and Other Organisms, represents the apotheosis of pre-Scopes progressionism. This book contains one of the most thorough and accurate (by the standards of its day) descriptions of evolution. However, the chapter preceding contains the most shocking defense of eugenics, summed up by this quote: “One of the reasons why Greece, Rome, and the other great nations of antiquity perished is that they violated the principles of eugenics. If our nation is to live its people must be of the best, and their blood must not be contaminated by that of the unfit. What is your state doing to improve the next generation?” (p. 337).

Thanks to Eric Engles for his fine dissertation on biology education in the Progressive Era from which I culled this list of textbooks.


Engles, Eric. 1991. “Biology Education in the Public High Schools of the United States from the Progressive Era to the Second World War: A Discursive History.” Dissertation.

Ladouceur, Ronald P. 2008. “Ella Thea Smith and the Lost History of American High School Biology Textbooks.” Journal of the History of Biology 41: 435-471.

Shapiro, Adam R. 2008. “Civic Biology and the Origin of the School Antievolution Movement.” Journal of the History of Biology 41: 409-433.