Roland Thaxter’s 19th century drawings of myxobacteria

Scott Chimileski Animalcule - Roland Thaxter Myxobacteria

Roland Thaxter observed and sketched many social behaviors for myxobacterial species long before they were experimentally characterized. Bot. Gaz. 17(12):389-406 (1892). (Public Domain).

I now sit within a secluded nook of the Sterling Memorial Library at Yale University, working alongside my sister, Lindsay. I am writing my dissertation (or perhaps more accurately, writing a blog article), while my sister puts together quizzes for an herbal medicine class she teaches. I find the occasion ideal to highlight these remarkable drawings of myxobacterial social behaviors by Roland Thaxter, who collected some of his samples here in New Haven. I was recently led to Thaxter’s images indirectly while reading E.O. Wilson’s 1975 book, Sociobiology.

Scott Chimileski Animalcule - Thaxter myxobacteria

There is little doubt that in this image, Thaxter has drawn swarming myxo cells moving out from the periphery of the colony. This phenomenon is strikingly reminiscent of modern studies of predataxis behavior.

Thaxter published these drawings in the Botanical Gazette in 1892, in “On the Myxobacteriaceae, a New Order of Schizomycetes.” Though Schizomycetes is an archaic botanical term for bacteria, Thaxter’s classification was among the first to separate myxobacteria from fungi, the branch of life in which they had previously been grouped. The drawings shown in this post represent species from the genera Chondromyces, Stigmatella, Archangium and Myxococcus.

“A few years since while collecting fungi at Kittery and in several other localities in New England and the southern states, the writer’s attention was attracted by a bright orange-colored growth occurring upon decaying wood, fungi and similar substances, which, although in gross appearance it seemed somewhat highly organized, was found, when examined in a presumably mature condition, to consist of apparently amorphous material, without signs of hyphae or spores of any kind. Its general appearance and the character of the substance which composed it suggested an immature condition of some myxomycete which had become dried while in the act of rising from the substratum to form its fruitification.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                   – Roland Thaxter, 1892

G.P. Clinton wrote a biography of Roland Thaxter for the National Academy of Sciences in 1935.  Thaxter was born in New England and spent most of his life here (like me, so far at least). In addition to New Haven, he collected samples in Kittery Point, Maine, where he spent many summers, and in Cambridge, MA, where he worked as a professor at Harvard for the bulk of his career.

Thaxter-Myxobacteria-3 copy

As a botanist, Thaxter’s attention was drawn to structural detail. This could explain how he was able to single out and produce the first descriptions of some of the most developmentally complex bacterial groups to be discovered, even to this day. According to Clinton, he was very much of the “pure science” type—less interested in practical applications for botany. It seems the division between these two ways of approaching science was already palpable in 1933.

Clinton also suggests that Thaxter’s success as a scientist was linked with his artistic creativity. The fact that these sketches are relevant and inspirational to me, a microbiologist studying social behaviors over 100 years later, is another testament to Thaxter’s artwork.

Scott Chimileski- Thaxter - Sociomicrobiology Myxobacteria

E.O. Wilson highlighted these drawings of fruiting body development in his 1975 book, Sociobiology.


Writing  within the historic Sterling Memorial Library at Yale University!

Yale Sterling Library

Yale Sterling Library

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