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OSBERT SALVIN (1835-1898)

The names of Godman and Salvin have been linked from the time they became fast friends as undergraduates at Cambridge. Godman later remarked, “We were more intimately connected than most brothers” (Godman 1918, 5), and in a sense they were part of a family – that of gentleman ornithologists.  Both came from wealthy families, both had the leisure to pursue scientific interests, and both focused on creating a huge collection of bird specimens from the region that interested them. In this they were related to a number of other similarly situated Victorian men – Philip Sclater, Lord Lilford, Alfred Newton, Henry Dresser, and others– who made great contributions to the knowledge of the bird life that captivated them, occasionally by the expenditure of substantial portions of their personal fortunes.

Between 1858 and 1865 Godman and Salvin traveled separately and together in Central America, collecting and training locals to continue collecting for them after they returned to England. In 1861 Salvin wrote of his pursuit of the resplendent quetzal, “unequalled for splendour among the birds of the New World,” that he was “determined, rain or no rain, to be off to the mountain forests in search of quetzals, to see and shoot which has been a daydream for me since I set foot in Central America” (Beolens and Watkins 2003, 298). The two men together created a small museum to house their ever-growing collection, and the rooms became a “zoological rendezvous” for English naturalists (Zoologist 1898). When donated to the British Museum the collection contained, according to Godman, about 85,000 bird specimens (Godman 1904, x). Other estimates put the number between 200,000 and 500,000 items (Bircham 2007, 197), no doubt including their collection of butterflies, obtained from Henry Walter Bates, which contained over 100,000 specimens, and other collections of Neotropical taxa they acquired in the course of their work. In short, the numbers vary according to the source, but they are all large.