MVZ’s Founding Director

Joseph Grinnell (1877-1939)

MVZ People

GrinnellJoseph Grinnell came to Berkeley from the Throop Polytechnic Institute in southern California, now Caltech, and served as Professor in Zoology and the first Director of the MVZ.

Grinnell shared Annie Alexander’s desire to establish a systematic research center on the West Coast, and left an academic lineage (pdf) that continues to have a major influence in evolutionary biology. Most of his work was in western North America, particularly in California, where he led many extensive expeditions. As a visionary, he could see that the rich and unique vertebrate fauna of California was under siege from increasing impacts of human population growth and unsustainable land use practices. His response was to amass, through the MVZ collections, an extraordinarily detailed record of the distribution and natural history of birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians, backed by specimens, photographs, and field notes.

Much of the value of this work lay in the fact that “after the lapse of many years, possibly a century, the student of the future will have access to the original record of faunal conditions in California”.


Grinnell’s emphasis on the importance of careful record-keeping and thorough documentation is evident in a colorful narrative (click here to listen!) by Ward Russell, the MVZ’s preparatory lab manager for 40 years, who recounted what it was like to be in the field with him (From an interview conducted at Ward’s home in Berkeley, California, March 4, 1992 by Oliver P. Pearson, Professor Emeritus and former MVZ Director).

Grinnell’s theory of the “ecological niche,” published in 1924, has proved to be one of the organizing principles of nature. In addition, his commitment to wildlife protection and conservation were instrumental in shaping the philosophy of the National Park System. The “Grinnell Resurvey Project” commemorates and builds on the ground-breaking work of Grinnell and his colleagues as the MVZ celebrated its centennial in 2008.

Grinnell also was known for his theories on subspecies and their importance in ecological partitioning; a 1940 cartoon about Grinnell captures one aspect of his perspective:
Cartoon about Grinnell

A year after Grinnell passed away in 1939, his wife Hilda Grinnell wrote a biography published in the Condor, Grinnell 1940 Condor_v42_1: 3-34.

UC Berkeley In Memoriam, 1939