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more general insights woven among empirical findings. He commented on advantages
of viviparous reproduction, for example, long before it was a popular research topic:
“Eggs left in the ground are exposed to attacks of egg-eating reptiles, mammals, and in-
sects, and to extremes of temperature and danger of desiccation, while those carried by
the female probably stand a better chance of developing into independently successful
young.” 12
Grinnell was pleased with Henry's progress, though concerned about his idiosyn-
crasies. As the director wrote to G.K. Noble at New York's American Museum of Natural
History, “All who have seen this thesis consider it of more than ordinary value. Fitch
is an excellent prospect for becoming a productive herpetologist. He reads widely but
is not social in his tendencies. He works by himself, minds his own business, and is
not communicative except when drawn out. First impressions upon some people result
in underestimation of his talents.” About then, Hall urged Henry to take an off-cam-
pus class in public speaking. At first the younger man, obliged to give an impromptu
speech, could only stand silent for several minutes before making a few awkward re-
marks, but with practice he gained skills to present talks, as well as some much-needed
social poise. Four years later Grinnell's first herpetology student had more than justified
his confidence. Henry's achievements, over the course of his lifetime, would far exceed
those of “a productive herpetologist.”
Settling on a dissertation topic was contentious. Henry first worked on alligator lizard
evolution, an extension of his thesis, but then initiated faunal surveys of the Rogue River
basin, started comparisons of reptiles living in different habitats, and finally proposed
an ambitious gartersnake project. Joseph Grinnell was shocked and indignant at such
“irresponsible” vacillation, and after heated arguments they met with Jean Linsdale,
who unlike the director had dabbled in herpetology and as a staff member could veto
Henry's choice. In front of their boss Linsdale smugly claimed to have suggested Bay
Area Thamnophis when Fitch first arrived and added, “It was a good project then and
still is.” Henry had in mind a geographically expansive, evolutionary investigation of an
entire species complex, but Linsdale's statement satisfied Grinnell, and so gartersnakes
it was.
Alexander Ruthven had noted in his 1908 University of Michigan dissertation that
Thamnophis “long stood in the minds of herpetologists as synonymous with chaos,”
and Henry addressed an especially troublesome subset of that mess. 13 Members of
Ruthven's “ T. elegans group” were colorful and abundant, running the gamut from
slender desert snakes to stout-bodied savanna inhabitants; in some places scalation and
color patterns distinguished two forms, whereas elsewhere variation was kaleidoscopic.
Ruthven judged that the group comprised a widely distributed T. elegans, T. ordinoides
of the Pacific Northwest, and T. hammondii south into Baja California. Ten years later,
California Academy of Sciences' John Van Denburgh and Joseph Slevin revisited this
“most difficult problem” and lumped them all as T. ordinoides. 14 Like Ruthven, they
were hampered by limited exposure to live snakes, since colors fade in preservative,
and by a paucity of specimens from critical areas. All three struggled with the questions
that inspired Darwin, Wallace, and now Grinnell's student Fitch: Among all those snakes
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