Limnology at the University of Wisconsin


UW-Madison is known as the birthplaces of limnology in North America. Edward Birge and Chancey Juday were the pioneers of the field. Here is how it began.


Edward Birge arrived in Madison in 1875 as the first trained zoologist at the University and an instructor of natural history. The University, being only about 25 years old and 500 students, had no research program to speak of and no facilities to do it in. Besides teaching courses in several areas including zoology, botany, human anatomy and bacteriology, Birge played a major role in creating a research program for zoology and physiology. He was also one of the first to use research and individual laboratory work as a method of teaching.


 Birge’s interest had little to do with limnology, however, until he accidentally came across a part written by France in 1894 discussing zooplankton migration in Lake Balaton in Hungary. Birge wondered if the zooplankton in Lake Mendota followed similar patterns and soon began to design equipment to study it. Thus, the adventure of Limnology at the University of Wisconsin began.


Chancey Juday joined Birge as a half-time lecturer in the Department of Zoology in 1908 after working for the newly created Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey for several years. In 1909, he began teaching the first courses on limnology and plankton organisms.  He also produced the first graduate students in limnology at the University.


After Juday’s arrival in the area, Birge and Juday began to work together as a team, initially concentrating their research on the Madison lakes, especially Mendota.  Most of their early research was in dissolved gases in Wisconsin lakes.  Their first joint publication was is 1908 and that was just the beginning. Over time they would be responsible for coauthoring over 1500 pages.


They were both field researchers, skeptical of laboratory experiments, hated “desk produced” papers and collected huge amounts of data, believing that if they collected enough data, it would speak for itself. They also knew that collaboration was the key to studying lakes. It was not unheard of to have up to 50 researchers from many different backgrounds, such as chemists, biologists, geologists and meteorologists involved in one publication.


The Trout Lake Station in Northern Wisconsin