Professor-student descent chains among scientists and other scholars

(Let’s get this out of the way tout-de-suite: We welcome our new mutant toothed chicken overlords).

It seems that very recently, John Fallon, of the University of Wisconsin, discovered a gene that produces incipient teeth in bird embryos. It’s not mentioned in the article, but when I heard the report on NPR, where it’s still available and should remain so for the foreseeable future), it was also mentioned that Fallon’s chain of professor-student descent goes back to none other than Baron Georges Cuvier, who said, among other things, that a chicken could never grow teeth.

So this got me wondering, how common is this sort of thing among scholars? Can many astronomers trace their academic dscent back to, say, Kepler or Copernicus? How about Roman Empire specialists tracing back to Theodor von Mommsen or Gibbon?

I’ve never seen it go back so far, but it does get done. At the 70th birthday celebration of a professor at Stanford, a slide show displayed four generations of students.

I’m vonNeumann’s grand student myself (my advisor was one of his students at Princeton.)

Check out the Mathematics Genealogy Project, which traces academic lineages back as far as eight or ten generations in some cases. (And you can get a poster with all your academic ancestors on it! :))

Yes, there is “pedigree collapse” in academic family trees as well as in genetic ones, so a surprising number of people do end up being descended from someone fairly well-known back in the 18th or 19th century.

Since there weren’t all that many professors in many fields in the nineteenth century, this sort of thing is probably pretty common. My boss here at the Smithsonian can trace his academic descent, through a somewhat convoluted path, back to Baron von Humboldt, the Ur-tropical biologist.

This site is a fun place for tracing chemistry “genealogy.” I can track my line (through Nobel Laureate Melvin Calvin, my academic “grandfather”) back nearly 400 years to a Swiss doctor named Franciscus Sylvius.

Fine Arts here…

I am two ‘generations’ removed from Josef Albers (Color Theory) and one from Joseph Beuys (highly conceptual modern sculpture and more) through the same professor (different times in her academic career). I didn’t particularily like her class, but in retrospect I learned a lot from her, oddly not color theory.

There are probably more examples I could think of, but that’s my example for now. I bet if I did some asking around, I would find some interesting trails backward from my Art History profs, too.

Very interesting site. It shows Erhard Wiegel with 5 students, one of whom, Gottfried Liebniz, has 33827 descendants. Liebniz’s only student is shown as Jacob Bernoulli, with 33826, and he has just one, Johann Bernoulli, with 33825. Johann’s only student is shown as Leonhard Euler, with 33824, and his only student shown is Joseph Lagrange, with 33823 descendents. However, two of his students were Fourier (with 23255) and Poisson (with 33820), so there’s a lot of overlap. :slight_smile:

The database only has 94393 records at the moment.

Franz Josef Haydn taught Ludwig van Beethoven on piano.
Beethoven taught Carl Czerny.
Czerny taught Franz Liszt.
Liszt taught Alexander Siloti.
Siloti taught Sergei Vassilievich Rachmaninoff…

Now I don’t want the chain to break there. Did Rachmaninoff have any famous piano students or grandstudents?

Yeah, and for the same reasons as mentioned in the recent articles about Niall of the Nine Hostages.

If people are sharing their histories, I’ll list what will become official in a few months, as according to the MGP mentioned above. It actually shows a certain amount of collapse. Spacing denotes generation, as some people had two advisors.



John Armstrong 2006
 Greg Zuckerman 1975
  Elias Stein 1955
   Antoni Zygmund 1923
    Aleksander Rajchman 1921
     Wladyslaw Hugo Steinhaus 1911
      David Hilbert 1885
       C. L. Ferdinand Lindemann 1873
        C. Felix Klein 1868
         Julius Plücker 1823
          Christian Gerling 1812
           Carl Gauß 1799
            Johann Pfaff 1786
             Abraham Kaestner 1739
              Christian Hausen 1713
               Johann Wichmannshausen 1685
                Otto Mencke 1665
         Rudolf Lipschitz 1853
          Gustav Dirichlet 1827
           Simeon Poisson ?
            Joseph Lagrange ?
             Leonhard Euler 1726
              Johann Bernoulli 1694
               Jacob Bernoulli ?
                Gottfried Leibniz 1666
                 Erhard Weigel 1650
           Jean-Baptiste Fourier ?
            Joseph Lagrange [above]
          Martin Ohm 1811
           Karl von Langsdorf 1781
    Stefan Mazurkiewicz 1913
     Wac?aw Sierpiñski 1906
      Stanislaw Zaremba 1889
       Gaston Darboux 1866
        Michel Chasles 1814
         Simeon Poisson [above]
       C. Émile Picard 1877
      George Voronoy 1897
       Andrei Markov 1884
        Pafnuty Chebyshev 1849
         Nikolai Brashman 1834
          Joseph von Littrow ?


Looking down from the oldest entries, many branches fail quickly, and the rest comprise most modern mathematicians. Mencke, for instance, had two students. One of them had no students of his own, while the other has 31380 descendants, of which the soon-to-be Dr. Armstrong is only the latest.

Hmm… Poking around a bit, I found that I am an academic descendant of G. Evelyn Hutchinson, considered the “Father of Ecology,” via Robert MacArthur and his students. :cool:

I just the MGP for the pedigrees of 16 of my old math professors. Three of them were not in the database, but of the others only one did not fall in the Poisson/Lagrange line–and he was only seven generations removed from Carl Gauss.