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ELSIE N. B. NAUMBURG (1880-1953)


Because of her gender, Elsie Naumburg was an unlikely systematist, and her modest background made her an even more unlikely benefactress for the American Museum of Natural History. Geoffrey Hellman, who wrote profiles of many New York institutions for The New Yorker, tells her story: “In 1917, Mrs. Elsie M. B. Reichenberger, a part-time volunteer in the Bird Department, asked the management whether she might ‘receive some remuneration for my work at the Museum for the coming year.’ This suggestion was at first declined, but in January, 1918, Dr. Chapman went to bat with the director, Dr. Lucas, and got Mrs. R. $37.50 a month for her half-time services. In the fall of that year, he had her raised to a hundred dollars a month as a full-time assistant. A widow, she presently married Mr. Walter W. Naumburg, a banker, and continued to work at the museum as a Research Associate (unpaid). Between 1926 and 1932, she financed ornithological field expeditions, mainly in Brazil, that brought in some thirteen thousand specimens” (Hellman 1969, 212). Not surprisingly, in 1930 her title was changed from research associate to associate benefactor, and she continued to sponsor the collecting work of Emil Kaempfer in southeastern Brazil and Paraguay until the outbreak of World War II.  She and her husband established the Frank M. Chapman Memorial Fund with a gift of IBM stock, and at her death Elsie Naumburg left $1,000,000 to permanently endow the fund, which makes annual research grants to this day. The Naumburgs also established competitions for young musicians that remain prestigious. As John T. Zimmer noted in Elsie Naumburg’s obituary in The Auk, “Her later years were filled with so many and so varied activities that her list of published writings does not accurately express the extent of her unfailing interest in ornithology” (Zimmer 1955, 266).