This is an article from the spring 2018 issue of 
LSA MagazineRead more stories from the magazine.


Professor Jacob Ellsworth Reighard (A.B. 1882, Sc.D. Hon. 1936) conducted research in his campus laboratory until his eyesight started to go. When the strain became too much, Reighard moved his work outdoors, studying fish mostly in Midwestern lakes and streams, but also farther afield in coral reefs off the coast of Florida.

Out on the water, Reighard became an expert photographer. He was most active in the early 1900s, when wildlife photography was very new and very difficult. Back then, most photo shoots involved transporting animals to convenient indoor aquariums. But Reighard sorely wanted to get pictures of fish in their natural habitat, “not by taking them from their native haunts and placing them in artificial containers.” 

Carrying a camera into the field was the first challenge. Some of his cameras were three feet long on each side, Reighard said, and “so unwieldy that a vehicle of some sort is needed to carry them.” One of his cameras “was so heavy that it required three men to handle it easily in air.” 

And, of course, he had to make sure that water didn’t damage the equipment. Of the two possibilities he saw for taking underwater photos—either creating a waterproof camera or locking an air-safe camera in a watertight box—Reighard opted to dunk the cameras he already had in a watertight metal box that he was happy to build.

Reighard loved spending time inventing and constructing contraptions for his work. Trial and error was important. He needed two hours to take a dozen underwater photos. Between shots, he had to lift his heavy apparatus out of the water, unscrew the watertight box, remove the camera, slide out the glass plate that held the negative image, and reassemble everything for the next photograph. And that time estimate probably didn’t account for idiosyncratic wait times while frantic fish grew comfortable with the distracting human photographer in their midst. 


Reighard put his fishing pole away in later life. He said, “Intimate knowledge of the beautiful interior intricacies of animals has brought a reluctance to disturb them, even by impaling a worm.”


Reighard worked with U-M’s Department of Zoology, noting at one point that he was the longest-serving professor at the university aside from one other faculty member. Starting as a professor in the 1880s, he became director of the Museum of Zoology and the Zoological Laboratory in 1894. He headed the lab for more than 30 years. 

Reighard somehow found the time and expertise to co-write a book called Anatomy of the Cat, published in 1901, though he spent nearly all his time researching fish. He had a role in establishing what is now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service outpost in Ann Arbor, and he helped found the Michigan Academy of Science, Arts, and Letters, serving as its president in 1900. He also helped get the U-M Biological Station up and running as its first director from 1909 to 1914.

The source of Reighard’s health issues has been lost to time, but we know that vision trouble forced him away from microscopes and into the water. And, later, a progressive deafness led him to a completely different field of study: lip-reading. From 1924 onward, he researched and published mostly about how to interpret spoken language by watching lip and mouth movements.

“I went into it at first on account of deafness, then became interested in studying methods of teaching,” Reighard wrote in a letter. “As a zoologist, I am not expert in psychology or phonetics or the teaching of languages,” but Reighard worked hard at his new discipline “with the help of my experience as a scientific man, a lip-reader, and a user of the scientific method.”

In his personal notes, Reighard mourned the disconnect that he felt as a result of deafness: “The great loss is that of conversation [and] an exchange of thought.”

He went to a special school in Denver for about a year in 1923 to learn lip-reading for himself and, he said, “came to a keen realization of its value to the adult deafened.”

One of the things he realized was that lip-reading is tough. Many sounds look exactly the same when pronounced; up to 75 percent of lip movements are ambiguous. Think about the spoken sentence, “There was a bad man at the bat,” particularly the words “bad,” “bat,” and “man.” Without context clues in the conversation, a lip-reader would be lost among those indistinguishable words, not to mention others like “mad,” “pan,” and “banned.” Letters like T, D, N, and L disappear with a hidden tongue; and H, K, C, and NG give barely any visual clues at all.

But Reighard also learned that lip-reading had big possibilities. He recognized the need to focus on “training of mind—far more than eye.” He advocated for university courses in lip-reading, and in 1926, he organized a class—one of the first of its kind in the United States—at an Ypsilanti college.


Reighard was one of the first to study fish as they behaved in natural environments, rather than studying dead fish in the lab. He also found methods of photographing fish embryos. (Photos by Jacob Reighard, originally published 1909.)


Throughout the years, Reighard spent much of his time in lake cottages that he and his faculty pals bought and shared. “The cottages not far away are out of sight, and, for me, out of hearing. There is the wilderness effect,” he said, that comforted him.

“[T]he suggestion might be offered to other hard-of-hearing persons that this sort of experience tends to build up a feeling of self-reliance,” he said. “To be master for a while of a bit of self-created wilderness, to make one’s self comfortable in it, fosters a self-confidence that the hard-of-hearing need.”

After retiring from a long and colorful career at U-M, Reighard died at the age of 81 in 1942. 



All photos courtesy of the U-M Bentley Historical Library