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PHILIP LUTLEY SCLATER (1829-1913)


“A Prince in the realm of Zoological science has fallen,” wrote D. G. Elliot in The Auk upon Sclater’s death, “and I am called here today to bid you look upon his face, and hearken to the records of his deeds” (Elliot 1914, 1).  A rather extravagant bit of memorial prose, but perhaps not so far from the mark. Philip Lutley Sclater was a pillar of the British ornithological establishment in the second half of the nineteenth century. He was the founder and for many years editor of The Ibis and from 1859 to 1902 secretary of the Zoological Society.  He published over 1,200 zoological papers, and at his death, according to Elliot, he was “an Honorary Member of nineteen, Corresponding Member of thirteen, Member of ten, and Fellow of three of the scientific societies of the world” (ibid., 10).  His specialty was Neotropical birds, and besides the two books in this exhibit, he penned four volumes of the Catalogue of the Birds in the British Museum that dealt with Neotropical families. He is also remembered for writing “On the General Geographical Distribution of the Members of the Class Aves” (Proceedings of the Linnean Society, 1858), which first described the world divided into the biogeographical zones – including the Neotropics – still in use today. 

Sclater was often derided as the ultimate “museum man,” a person whose knowledge of birds was restricted to shot specimens. In a sense that is true, but it is also true that he was well aware of the problem. He finished the introduction to this book by remarking, “We are at present utterly ignorant of all that regards their [tanagers’] propagation, nidification, and internal structure, and in reality we know merely such facts concerning them as can be deduced from the examination of their dried skins. [I am] . . . reminding those, who have opportunities of observing these and other animals in their native wilds, how much it is in their power, by observations on these and similar points, to increase our knowledge of the wonderful and varied productions of Nature” (p. x).  At one point he acted to address this inadequacy: In 1888 he employed W. H. Hudson to write notes on the habits of the birds he described in Argentine Ornithology. This book, his first, also represents a conscious attempt by Sclater to publish a bird book on a scale and at a cost that the average person could afford – in contrast to Gould’s monographs on Neotropical birds, which were (and still are) beyond the reach of all but the very wealthy.  It is nonetheless a very nice book, Oudart being one of “the most highly skilled of the artists . . . associated with the French museum tradition” (Soffer 2010).