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CARL EDUARD HELLMAYR (1878-1944)


For all his contributions to Neotropical ornithology, it is remarkable that Hellmayr never visited South or Central America. Indeed, apart from a decade spent in Chicago, he lived most of his life in the snow-covered Alps. Born near Vienna, Hellmayr received his earliest education at Stift Seitenstetten, a rural monastery surrounded by forests and fields teeming with bird life. He was a precocious teenager and began writing a work on the ornithology of Lower Austria at the age of sixteen. At twenty, he published his first article on the flycatchers of the Vienna Woods.

While attending an ornithological meeting in Leipzig in 1900, Hellmayr met Count Hans von Berlepsch, a wealthy ornithologist and bird collector who was greatly interested in the American tropics. Berlepsch had a profound influence on him, and the two remained fast friends until Berlepsch’s death, in 1915. In 1905 Hellmayr traveled to England, where he was granted access to the eccentric Lord Rothschild’s private natural history collection at Tring, a small town near London. This was a formative experience for Hellmayr; he remained at Tring for three years, working closely with the collection’s curator, the German ornithologist Ernst Hartert. He returned to Munich in 1908 and became the curator of the ornithology department at the Bavarian State Museum, a department he had helped organize five years earlier.  He spent the next decade in Munich, correcting and updating descriptions of Johann Baptist von Spix’s collection of Brazilian birds and publishing many other articles that established him as the world’s leading authority on Neotropical ornithology.

In 1921, Charles B. Cory, curator of zoology at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, died, and Hellmayr was chosen as his successor. With that job came the task of picking up where Cory had left off on a gargantuan project he had started a few years before his death – a catalogue of all the birds of North and South America. There was an obvious need for such a catalogue. At that time, the synthesis of newly discovered species was made difficult by the chaotic nomenclature of Neotropical avifauna, which had resulted from more than a century of energetic but disorganized collecting. What was needed was someone who could clear up the confusion by creating a master checklist. Hellmayr, with his meticulous work habits and astonishing memory, was just the man for the job. He arrived in Chicago in October 1922 and threw himself full force into completing Cory’s Catalogue of Birds of the Americas, a work that would eventually run to fifteen large volumes.

By 1931, Hellmayr, a lover of mountains, had grown restless in Chicago and decided to continue his work on the catalogue in Vienna. In 1938, however, Germany annexed Austria, and he was arrested for reasons that are not clear, but possibly because of his refusal to kowtow to the Nazis. Upon his release from jail, he and his wife fled to Switzerland, abandoning all their property. He continued working on the catalogue in Geneva, but the Second World War made communication with other scholars and the work’s publishers difficult. In 1942, his health, which had been in decline since his arrest, became so bad that he moved to Orselina, near the Swiss border with Italy, where he hoped the milder winters would help him recuperate. He never did, however, and died of kidney failure in February 1944, without fulfilling his dream of traveling to the American tropics. (Michael Taylor)