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FRANK M. CHAPMAN (1864-1945)


Frank M. Chapman left a promising banking career to study birds, at a time (1886) when there were fewer than a dozen paying jobs for an ornithologist in America. On his own he traveled to Florida, a place “of abundant promise for the naturalist” (Chapman 1933, 42), where he encountered pumas, black bears (devouring sea turtle eggs), and three now extinct birds: ivory-billed woodpecker, Bachman’s warbler, and Carolina parakeet (perched on top of his tent). In 1888 he was fortunate to secure a job at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), and he remained with the museum for the rest of his professional life, retiring in 1942. His accomplishments were truly remarkable, both as a scientist and as an educator. He did seminal work on South American birds with his scientific studies of the avifauna of Colombia and Ecuador, while simultaneously editing Bird-Lore, the most important American journal of popular ornithology at the time.  He nurtured the scientific collections at AMNH from a modest 50,000 study skins when he arrived, to the world’s second-largest collection (over 800,000) when he retired.  At the same time, he tried to increase public appreciation by displaying “habitat groups” of birds, an innovative alternative to the isolated cabinets of stuffed specimens that dominated most natural history museums. Before the end of his long tenure, “the day of the bird collector had passed and the day of the bird student had come” (Chapman 1933, 189); he straddled the two eras and enriched both.