A Phenomenal Physiologist

Olivia Campbell
7 min readNov 6

The wild and wonderful life of Ida Henrietta Hyde

Image: American Physiological Society

At the age of 14, Ida Henrietta Hyde found herself in the precarious position of family breadwinner. Her parents were immigrants to America from Germany, and they’d lost everything, including their business, when their house burned down in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

Slowly, Ida worked her way up from milliner’s apprentice to shop salesperson. One day at work, she stumbled upon an English copy of Alexander von Humboldt’s natural history masterpiece Views of Nature. Humboldt’s poetic, emotional essays overflowed with detailed descriptions of the natural world. His prose put the reader at the center of the action, in landscapes and lands most Western people had only dreamed of visiting. The book essentially invented a new genre of nature writing, a new way to think about nature and for humans to think about their relationship and interconnection to it. It was science writing that wasn’t stodgy and dry, but downright beautiful, inspirational. The book would change the course of Ida’s life. She now dreamed of becoming a scientist.

Ida Henrietta Hyde, age 14 (The Physiologist, Vol. 24, №6, 1981)

She began attending night school classes. A visit to the University of Illinois campus to see her brother showed her that women existed in academia. She decided to take the entrance exam herself, which she passed with flying colors. While her earnings had been funding her brother’s college, her savings only covered one year of school for her before she had to drop out. All of her educational aspirations were met with anguished protests from her family.

After a seven-year pause to earn enough funds, Ida’s education could begin in earnest. She left Chicago and enrolled at Cornell University in 1888. Summers were spent at the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Massachusetts. By 1892, she’d graduated and become an official investigator at the lab. Her lectures covered the anatomy and embryology of jellyfish and other gelatinous sea creatures. Ida was awarded a scholarship to begin pursuing an advanced science degree at Bryn Mawr College.

Her Woods Hole research on the neurophysiology of invertebrates settled a long-standing debate…

Olivia Campbell

New York Times bestselling author of WOMEN IN WHITE COATS. Bylines: The Atlantic, The Cut, Aeon, Smithsonian, Guardian. https://oliviacampbell.substack.com