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WILLIAM BEEBE (1877-1962)


William Beebe was a prolific and popular author; he published twenty-four books and some 825 articles (Berra 1977). The early writings focused on birds, culminating with the publication of his Monograph of the Pheasants, a four-volume opus published between 1918 and 1922 that is regarded as one of the great bird books of the twentieth century. After that, his curiosity lured him into many fields of research, most famously undersea work done in the world’s first deep-diving bathysphere. His entire career was spent as an employee of the New York Zoological Society, which benefited not only from his scientific pursuits, but also from his gift for friendship, which brought support to the society from people such as Theodore Roosevelt, who both liked and admired Beebe. For a person of such diverse interests no place could be more attractive than the tropics, and Beebe spent much of his professional life in British Guiana, Venezuela, and Trinidad. His approach to research was fundamentally different from that of most scientists and collectors who preceded him, with their concentration on wide-ranging exploration to determine the distribution and classification of animal life. Beebe preferred to work intensively on a small scale.  “He came to the astonishing realization that a few acres of tropical forest can contain as many kinds of birds and insects as the entire continental United States” (Gould 2004, 198).  The research stations he established carried on investigations of every aspect of ecology, from the composition of the soil to the life of the epiphytes found high in the canopy, to everything living in between: birds, insects, reptiles, amphibians, mammals. He was interested in behavior and in webs of relationships between faunas and floras. He gathered around him an equally eclectic group of young scientists to help with the work, many of whom stayed with him for years, including Jocelyn Crane, who became the world’s leading expert on fiddler crabs and was more to Beebe than a colleague. Beebe spent the last years of his life (he was still quite spry at eighty) at the last research station he founded, called Simla, on the island of Trinidad. After his death it was merged with the property of his neighbor and friend Asa Wright to create the now-famous Asa Wright Nature Center.