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LEO E. MILLER (1887-1952)


Besides his place of birth (Huntingburg, Indiana) nothing much is known about the life of Leo Miller before he arrived at Buenaventura, Colombia, in March 1911, the youngest member of a trio that included Frank Chapman and Louis Agassiz Fuertes.  His subsequent work in Colombia impressed Chapman: “Miller, a novice on our first expedition, showed such resourcefulness, energy and persistence in overcoming the difficulties which are the necessary accompaniment of collecting in the tropics, that he was subsequently selected as one of the Museum’s representatives with the Roosevelt Brazilian Expedition. His work during the rainy season in the humid Amazonian forests of the Caquetá, where with only unskilled native assistance he secured 830 birds and mammals in 30 days is a feat in tropical collecting; while his ascent of the Paramillo [at 13,000 feet, one of the highest mountains in Colombia] is our most difficult and noteworthy piece of actual exploration in Colombia” (Chapman 1917, 9-10).  Chapman kept Miller busy for most of the next six years collecting specimens of birds and mammals for the American Museum of Natural History on trips that were largely financed by Theodore Roosevelt.  Miller traveled and collected widely, but his main focus was on helping Chapman with his work on elevational distribution along the Andes, from Colombia all the way to Patagonia.

Miller is representative of the many young men who ventured into South America as aspiring field naturalists, collecting specimens on behalf of American and European museums and private collectors. Their names appear in the acknowledgments of major publications, and occasionally they produce minor publications of their own, but after a few years they disappear from the record, no doubt having succumbed to the demands of life at home – families, children, the need to make a decent living, and perhaps a reluctance to revisit the routine difficulties of life in the field, which Miller describes with an admirable lack of whining. This seems to have happened to Miller, too, the only difference being that he had a gift for writing. As Theodore Roosevelt remarked in an introductory note for an article Miller published in Scribner’s Magazine, “[Miller] possessed the power which so many good observers lack, the power of vivid and faithful presentation of the thing observed” (Miller 1917, 577). Miller returned to the United States from South America in September 1917 and apparently served his country in World War I – the last paragraph of In the Wilds of South America (1918) finds him at a military base “awaiting orders to go to new lands and new and possibly far more exciting experiences” (p. 424). After the war he produced, in rapid succession, a series of “lost world” novels set in South America, with titles such as Adrift on the Amazon, The Jungle Pirates, and The Hidden People. After the last of these books appeared, in 1925, he seems to have put adventure behind him, aside from remaining a member of the Explorers Club.  He moved to Stamford, Connecticut, married, had two children, and the only scientific activity with which he can be firmly connected is horticulture – his home was called Floral Park, and, as a judge for the Metropolitan Gladiolus Club competition, he was described as “a scientific breeder of new varieties” (New York Times, July 26, 1931).  He remained in Stamford for the rest of his life and died there on October 6, 1952.