Campus & Community

Charles Peirson Lyman, 87

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Memorial Minute — Faculty of Arts and Sciences

At a meeting of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences on Oct. 3, 2023, the following tribute to the life and service of the late Charles Peirson Lyman was spread upon the permanent records of the Faculty.

It was not true that the Lowells spoke only to the Cabots and the Cabots spoke only to God.  Both families were on cordial terms with the Lymans.  Charles Peirson Lyman, or Charlie, as he was known, came from a well-to-do Boston family.  The Lyman fortune had been made in the China trade by Lyman’s great-great-grandfather, the first Theodore Lyman.  Lyman’s great-grandfather Theodore Lyman, Jr., graduated in the Harvard College class of 1810 and was mayor of Boston in the 1830s.  Lyman’s grandfather Theodore Lyman III, who graduated in the Harvard class of 1855 before attending the Lawrence Scientific School, was a Harvard overseer, a cousin of Charles Eliot (whom he was instrumental in having appointed as Harvard President), and an underwriter and organizer of the Museum of Comparative Zoology (MCZ), for which he served as a trustee and treasurer.  Lyman’s uncle Theodore Lyman IV, Harvard class of 1897, was a physics professor at Harvard University, after whom the Lyman Laboratories are now named.  Lyman’s father, Henry Lyman, and mother, Elizabeth Cabot Lyman, named their elder son after Charles Lawrence Peirson, Harvard Class of 1853, who had been an officer in the 20th Massachusetts Infantry and had been captured at the battle of Ball’s Bluff in the Civil War.

Lyman graduated from Harvard College in 1936.  In June 1941, he married Jane Hunnewell Cheever, a former student of Radcliffe College.  Lyman received his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1942.  His thesis on color change in snowshoe hares was supervised by Glover Morrill Allen, Curator of Mammals and Professor of Zoology at the Museum of Comparative Zoology.  As a graduate student, Lyman also undertook physiological research at Harvard Medical School under the supervision of Frederick Hisaw.  Immediately after defending his thesis, Lyman served in the Pacific Theater as an aviation physiologist with the United States Army Air Corps.  In this role, he advised airmen on the use of oxygen equipment at high altitude.  After the war, he returned to Harvard and divided his time between Harvard Medical School and the Museum of Comparative Zoology.

At Harvard Medical School, Lyman undertook research in the Departments of Physiology and Anatomy.  He served as Associate Professor of Anatomy and was the curator of the Warren Anatomical Museum.  At the Museum of Comparative Zoology, Lyman served as Assistant Curator of Mammals.  In 1951, he became Associate Curator of Mammals under Barbara Lawrence Schevill.  In the 1960s, he helped to establish the Concord Field Station in Bedford, Massachusetts, for the study of large animal physiology and to support field research activities in Concord’s Estabrook Woods.  He was Acting Director of the Field Station for six years until the appointment of his former doctoral student Charles Richard Taylor as the first permanent director.  Lyman became Curator of Mammalogy in 1968 and then Professor of Biology in 1976–77 as MCZ curatorial positions were converted into professorships in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.  He retired from the Faculty in 1981 but continued research at Harvard Medical School and the Concord Field Station.  In 1989, his brother, Henry Lyman, and friends endowed the Charles P. Lyman chair in comparative physiology.  Charles Richard Taylor was the first incumbent of the professorship.

Lyman’s research in comparative physiology covered many species and topics but with a particular focus on torpor, hibernation, and adaptation to cold temperatures.  As endothermic animals, many mammals and birds undergo short periods of torpor or longer periods of hibernation.  Examples are the daily nocturnal torpor of hummingbirds, used to conserve their energy by cooling their bodies at night, or longer-term hibernators such as ground squirrels and marmots, who conserve energy over the course of the winter.  Lyman led the field of animal torpor and hibernation from the 1960s and into the 1980s, showing that an animal’s entrance into torpor or hibernation is a highly regulated change of physiological state.  This change requires the integration of higher and lower brain centers to initiate and subsequently coordinate the animal’s cardiovascular and respiratory systems in relation to its cellular metabolism.

Lyman showed that entry to torpor is driven by vagal parasympathetic inhibition of heart and breathing rates that lead to a decline in blood pressure, metabolic rate, and thus body temperature.  When in torpor or hibernation, animals can lower and regulate their body temperature to as low as 5°C, compared to a normal value of 37 to 41°C.  Lyman and his students found that deeper, longer periods of hibernation involve the additional withdrawal of the animal’s sympathetic stimulation of heart rate.  Lyman pioneered early studies of the brain circuits and neurotransmitters involved in coordinating the changes in physiological state, speculating that the limbic, the reticular, or both regions of the brain drive the shift in physiological state in response to sensory information processed within the cortex.

Just as entrance into torpor or hibernation is a regulated physiological process, Lyman showed that arousal from torpor or hibernation is a similarly regulated process involving increased muscle activity to warm the animal in conjunction with increased heart and breathing rates.

An amusing family story tells of Lyman’s passion for animal physiology.  One early spring, while on a trip at a lodge in northern Scotland with his wife, Lyman spied a sleepy hedgehog staggering out of the melting forest snow.  The next morning, the French cook ran screaming out of the hotel refrigeration unit, chased by the angry hedgehog.  Lyman had caught the animal and deposited it in the refrigerator to see if chilling would reinduce torpor — apparently not!

Lyman’s monographs in “Hibernation and Torpor in Mammals and Birds” appeared in 1982, the year after his retirement.

Charles Lyman was married to Jane Hunnewell Cheever for 58 years and together they raised five children, Charles, Jr., Theodore, Russell, Elizabeth, and Jane, at Pakeen Farm in Canton, Massachusetts.  The Lymans were ardent conservationists devoted to the preservation of agricultural land in Massachusetts.  Pakeen Farm continues to be actively managed as a Community Supported Agriculture farm by their daughter Jane (Lyman) Bihldorff and grandson David Bihldorff.

Respectfully submitted,

A.W. Crompton
David Haig
Andrew A. Biewener, Chair