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Teaching in Siam: 1928-1930

By Karen Lloyd

Siam, Mekong River

Siam, Mekong River

Siam, situated in south-east Asia, has a varied geography of mountains, fertile plains, tropical rain-forests and monsoon forests, with the country's economy being based upon these natural resources. At the time of Dr. Alexander's visit, Siam was ruled by an absolute monarchy. However, this was changed in 1932 into a constitutional monarchy and the country began to follow a more western style political system. In 1939 the country was renamed Thailand by the Siamese government.

Before leaving British Columbia for Siam, Gordon and Marion spent time visiting Alpine rock gardens, which are, even today, ubiquitous to the area. British Columbia brought back fond memories of the summer Gordon and Marion had spent together hiking in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, and as they sailed towards Siam, they took those memories of Colorado with them to a very new and different world.

Prior to their visit, Gordon and Marion had only a limited knowledge of Siam. Embarking on such a journey took courage, as they had no idea what would greet them in the strange and unfamiliar country. After returning to the U.S. two years later, Dr. Alexander wrote in his Scientific Monthly article, "Biological Opportunities in Siam" (1931): "We have all thought Siam must be, for the most part, a hinterland of dark jungle, inhabited largely by elephants and tigers and apes, where man exists only through supreme but very close-to-nature cunning! Our imagination has been extravagant. Siam is not a savage land. This does not mean, however, that she is not and will not be for years to come a land of opportunity for the biologist."

Science Building, Chulalongkorn University

Science Building, Chulalongkorn University

During his time on the teaching faculty of Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Dr. Alexander contributed to the establishment of new biology courses within the pre-medical program, which had been started by a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation in 1923. Some of his recommendations also included the teaching of a four year general biology program.

As Gordon recognized that the country would need to protect its natural resources if its economy was to prosper, his recommendations emphasized the creation of a four year general biology program that would include teaching applied biology associated with fisheries, forestry conservation and agriculture. Gordon believed a general biology program would benefit the country and the people by helping them to understand and utilize the fauna and flora in a sustainable manner. Gordon was already exploring the ideas of conservation and environmental issues.

Gordon and Marion traveled extensively throughout Siam utilizing the new railroad and road systems that linked out-of-the-way areas to the capital Bangkok. Dr. Alexander and colleagues from the Chulalongkorn University also took advantage of modern transportation to study the natural history in the north of the country and the remote islands which were scattered along the coast. The age of month long treks through "untracked jungle" had all about ended. Gordon and Marion had a wonderful opportunity to experience Siam when the country was only just beginning to be explored by biologists from the West.

While in Siam, Dr. Alexander used his time to perfect his observation skills and scientific methodology. During the winter and spring months he collected a variety of birds (woodpeckers, perching birds, cuckoos, and kingfishers), which were either indigenous or regular visitors to Siam. This collection is now housed in the Zoology collection at the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History, Boulder, CO. [Specimen list]

His natural history observations led him to recognize convergent evolutionary similarities in the fauna. For example, Gordon noted that birds were not the only species that could fly. He observed "flying" fish in the gulf, "flying" squirrels, "flying" foxes and "flying" lemurs. Although the fish, squirrels, foxes and lemurs have not developed the ability of true flight, they have evolved adaptations which allow them to jump or glide through the air.

Gordon and Marion at his graduation

Gordon received PhD at Princeton, NJ
Gordon and Marion with Anne
June 17, 1931

In 1930 Gordon and Marion returned to Princeton University in order that Gordon could complete his PhD research on the physiology of protozoa. According to his son Douglas, Dr. Alexander wanted to continue exploring his love of ecology and was anxious to complete his doctorate thesis (publications link) on physiology as quickly as possible. Physiology was not an area of study that he wanted to continue with. Dr. Alexander and his wife stayed in Princeton until 1931, when, after obtaining his PhD and the birth of their daughter Anne, Gordon accepted a faculty position at the University of Colorado in Boulder. Gordon and his new family were going back to the Rocky Mountains.

Gordon and Marion's fascination with Thailand would continue throughout their lives. In 1956 they returned, along with their son Douglas, to Chulalongkorn University. There Gordon enjoyed teaching ecology where he could combine his own previous experience in the country with current developments in the field. He also consulted about curriculum in the Biology Department that he had helped set up on his first visit. One Thai professor took advantage of Gordon's presence and took time off to spend a period as a Buddhist monk. Gordon was asked to take over his class.

During the 1980's their grandson was a volunteer medical worker in Thailand. While on a visit to Chulalongkorn University he entered the Biology Department and hanging there in the library was a portrait of Gordon Alexander. The contributions made by Professor Alexander to the University and the Biology Department had not gone unnoticed.

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