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ALEXANDER WETMORE (1886-1978)


Late in his long life Wetmore was fond of describing what he called “my zoo,” the more than fifty new genera, species, and subspecies of recent and fossil birds (along with assorted insects, mammals,and mollusks) that were given his name by his professional colleagues (Ripley and Steed 1987, 608). Combined with the 189 species and subspecies of birds named by Wetmore himself, it is a quite remarkable menagerie of zoological recognition (Oehser 1980). Wetmore achieved this stature by a route typical of what one imagines for an American ornithologist growing up at the beginning of the twentieth century. His mother gave him a copy of Frank Chapman’s Handbook of Birds of Eastern North America when he was five, and by the time he was fourteen, his acquaintance with Chapman was personal: He published a note on the behavior of red-headed woodpeckers in Bird-Lore, the journal of popular ornithology Chapman edited.

By 1920 he had his PhD, and he worked for the U.S. Biological Survey until in 1924 the opportunity presented itself to move to the Smithsonian, a chance he seized. He remained there for twenty-eight years, rising to become the secretary of the institution from 1944 until his retirement in 1952 (Ripley and Steed 1987). Amazingly, he managed to do a great deal of research amidst his administrative duties, especially in a field that had few adherents during his lifetime: avian paleontology. He published a steady stream of papers devoted to the subject, especially on the fossil birds of the Caribbean and the eastern United States. Among the more famous of the fossils he identified is Tyto ostologa, from Haiti, one of a number of species of extinct barn owls that once inhabited the islands of the Caribbean. Some of these probably flightless owls were quite large – the biggest, inhabiting Cuba, was over 40 inches tall and weighed over 20 pounds (Arredondo 1976).

Wetmore also used the fossil record to expand our understanding of the prehistoric distribution of birds in North America: There were once condors in Florida, magpies in Virginia, and spruce grouse in Georgia (Olson 1976, xiv). Personally, Wetmore was like some other prominent American ornithologists– Ridgway, Murphy, Zimmer – reserved, respected, and “perhaps outwardly austere” (Oehser 1980, 613). One admirer said, “Although he likes the company of men, particularly scientists, he is happiest when he is with birds” (Terres 1948).