Two Centuries of Columbian Constitutionalism

Edmund Beecher Wilson: America's First Cell Biologist

UNTIL NOW THE “LIVING LEGACIES” series has paid attention mostly to great Columbians of recent vintage—usually twentieth-century figures—and has left it to Robert McCaughey’s forthcoming history of Columbia to treat others no longer within living memory.

Michael Dorf breaks out of this mold with his conviction that the whole development of constitutionalism in the United States derives from the contributions of Alexander Hamilton, to which one can trace “a distinctly Columbian approach to constitutionalism.” Though Hamilton never served on the Court himself, it was nine Supreme Court justices from Columbia who successfully bodied forth what Dorf calls this “Columbian vision” of a “strong central government fostering a national economy while the federal judiciary protects individuals against the threat of majoritarian tyranny.”

Columbian Supreme Court Justices Benjamin Nathan Cardozo (left) and Charles Evans Hughes.
This judicial line began with John Jay 1740C (1789–95), the first Chief Justice of the Court, and continues today with Ruth Bader Ginsburg (1993–present). Thus, Dorf concludes, “the story of Columbia’s justices is in a real sense the story of American constitutionalism.”

One might suspect such strong claims for a distinctive Columbia role of these proportions to come from an excess of native loyalty and zeal in an alumnus. Dorf, however, hails from Harvard, with bachelor’s and law degrees both magna cum laude. His perspective must include the contending, if not competing, claims to a major role in American constitutionalism. Dorf has served as law clerk to Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy and has published numerous articles on the Supreme Court and constitutionalism in the law reviews of Columbia, Harvard, Stanford, and many others. His current areas of teaching and research are constitutional law, constitutional theory, and civil procedure.

Edmund Beecher Wilson
Readers of “Living Legacies” may recall the first of these essays, on Thomas Hunt Morgan and the origins of biology, in which Eric Kandel noted the importance of Edmund Beecher Wilson to Morgan’s work. When Morgan arrived on campus, Kandel says, “he came under the influence of his long-term friend and colleague, the zoology department’s chairman, Edmund Wilson, one of the eminent cytologists of his time and a founder of the field of cell biology. Wilson convinced Morgan that the key to understanding development—how one cell, the egg, gives rise to the animal—is to understand heredity, since it provides the means by which the egg and the sperm carry the properties of individuals from one generation to another.”

In the present essay on Wilson, Qais Al-Awqati, M.D., Robert F. Loeb Professor of Medicine and professor of physiology and cellular biophysics in the College of Physicians and Surgeons, fills out the picture of Wilson as a giant in his own right, as the chair of the department who, in his pioneering work on cell biology, set the direction for a whole new field, and as a teacher in Columbia College trained a generation of brilliant scholars, many of whom went on to work with Morgan. Wilson may be thought of as one of the first cell biologists in the modern sense of the phrase who used microscopy to answer what we now call molecular questions.

Al-Awqati was born and raised in Baghdad, Iraq, where he obtained his medical degree. He completed his training at Johns Hopkins and Harvard. His research focuses on the mechanism by which cells control the location of ion transporting proteins.

Wm. Theodore de Bary '41C '53GSAS '95HON
for the Living Legacies Series
of the 250th Anniversary Celebration