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MUSEUM MEN


Whatever the travails endured by explorer-collectors in the field, at least they are now remembered with a certain admiration and envy. By contrast, the “museum man,” the taxonomist who labored to make sense of all those birds, is largely forgotten.  Such men worked with specimens laced with arsenic, alcohol, and other preservatives in conditions often cramped, cold, and airless, in an obscurity brightened only by publication in equally obscure journals. Among the names associated with such museum work are August von Pelzeln, Ladislas Taczanowski, A. O. Des Murs, and Jean Cabanis.  To be sure, there were “gentleman ornithologists” – Frédéric de Lafresnaye in France, Hans von Berlepsch in Germany, and several notables in England – who led a pleasant life by combining their wealth with their passion. But some of them, such as P. L. Sclater, certainly had a reputation for crankiness. “Let a man be as humourous and witty as he likes,” Sclater drily remarked, “but he must keep all of that out of a scientific paper” (Roberts 1924, 133). Perhaps Samuel Johnson’s self-deprecating definition of a lexicographer as a “writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge, that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words” would suit the nineteenth-century taxonomist if “dictionaries” were changed to “synonymies” and “words” to “birds.”

Few museum men had the opportunity to actually study the habits of birds or visit the countries where their specimens originated, and for that they were often roundly (and unfairly) castigated, as the emphasis of study began to shift from taxonomy to life history.  Theodore Roosevelt summed up the prevailing attitude in his typical dashing, slashing style: “The time has passed when we can afford to accept as satisfactory a science of animal life whose professors are either mere roaming field collectors or mere closet catalogue writers who examine and record minute differences in ‘specimens’ precisely as philatelists examine and record minute differences in postage stamps – and with about the same breadth of view and power of insight into the original. Little is to be gained by that kind of ‘intensive’ collecting and cataloguing which bears fruit only in innumerable little pamphlets describing with meticulous care unimportant new ‘subspecies’ or new ‘species’ hardly to be distinguished from those already long known. Such pamphlets have almost no real interest except for the infrequent rival specialists who read them with quarrelsome interest” (Beebe 1917, [ix]).

There was at least one consolation for the museum man who described a bird new to science: He got to name it, and his own name appeared after the binomial as the first describer of the species. Alas, it is a fragile form of immortality, since with advances in knowledge many, many old names have passed into the oblivion of synonymies – those long lists of species names that stand at the beginning of detailed taxonomic descriptions in scientific literature. Most of the naming was done in journals published by the great scientific societies of Europe. In England, the first such organization was the Royal Society, founded in 1660 and devoted to all of the sciences. As the volume of scientific information increased dramatically in the eighteenth century, a desire for more specialized groups was felt. The result was the Linnean Society, devoted to the life sciences, formed in 1788. In 1830 more specialization called forth the Zoological Society, which in turn was superseded, for ornithologists, by the formation of the British Ornithologists’ Union, in 1858. The first issue of its journal, The Ibis, appeared in 1859.  At about the same time (1853) Jean Cabanis began publication of the Journal für Ornithologie in Berlin, while in Paris most descriptive work originated in the Revue Zoologique, founded in 1838. The American Ornithologists’ Union, founded in 1883, was late in arriving on the scene. Because its journal, The Auk, commenced publication after the great age of ornithological discovery was over, few new species are described in its pages. By contrast, the Proceedings of the Zoological Society, by virtue of flourishing at the height of early nineteenth-century exploration, contains the first descriptions of over 1,100 new birds worldwide (Peterson 2009).