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ROBERT CUSHMAN MURPHY (1887-1973)


By any standard Bob Murphy was an accomplished scientist. In 1912, newly married and with a degree from Brown, he went on his first expedition – a year spent as seaman (but actually naturalist) on one of the last whaling ships under sail, the Daisy. That voyage, which included his introduction to the amazing bird life of South Georgia Island, sparked a lifelong absorption with oceanic birds, culminating in the publication of Oceanic Birds of South America, in 1936. During the intervening and following years he authored some six hundred scientific and popular articles, was president of the American Ornithologists’ Union (1948-50), served as chairman of the Department of Birds at the American Museum of Natural History (1942-55) following the retirement of Frank Chapman, was chairman of the board of the National Audubon Society, and received a case-full of medals and awards from various organizations. That sort of information can be gleaned from a person’s obituary. In Murphy’s case, we have an additional, almost unique source: the memoirs of his wife, Grace Murphy, published in 1951 as There’s Always Adventure: The Story of a Naturalist’s Wife.  It offers a warm and affectionate portrait of her husband, but not without candidly acknowledging the price she paid to live with a professional naturalist and museum administrator: “To live with birds and in their company he needed to be free of people, as he has been and as he is. It was essential for him to lose himself in birds so that he has said repeatedly, ‘I like birds much better than I like people.’ Of course! Had he liked people better he would have followed quite a different sort of profession.  He likes people he can talk to, which is natural, but people themselves have but a hazy meaning for him. Because he could not be a bird but was a human being, he doubtless needed me as a bridge. No matter how I bruised myself against the wall that his science built, so very cold to live with when one is warm and hungry, I knew my role in growing clarity.” A few pages later she adds, “His ways have always reminded me of Rebecca’s remark in Sunnybrook Farm about her pink parasol: ‘It is the dearest thing in life; but it is a great care’” (G. Murphy 1951, 155-56, 176).