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RODOLPHE MEYER DE SCHAUENSEE (1901-1984)


Barons and counts were something of a staple in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century natural science, and in the early twentieth century Walter, the second Lord Rothschild, was without peer as a collector of zoological specimens from all over the world. After that, however, the dwindling nobility of Europe seems to have lost what interest they had in the study of ornithology. Meyer de Schauensee was a notable exception. His father, Frederick, was a Swiss baron, his mother from a family found in Philadelphia’s social register. The Meyer de Schauensees took up residence at an estate near Philadelphia, where “as a young man Rodolphe developed a keen interest in birds and maintained an aviary of tropical species” (Ripley 1986). He associated himself with the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, which for fifty years remained his ornithological home, a base from which he traveled extensively – to Thailand, Burma, South Africa – collecting for the museum.  He often traveled with his wife, Williamina, and occasionally with his daughters, and one suspects they traveled in some style. Nor were his collecting interests restricted to zoology.  He and his wife formed a splendid collection of rare pre-Revolution French rococo silver, which was later sold at auction, and donated artwork by Brancusi and Gauguin to the Philadelphia Academy of Art. He was, as Dillon Ripley noted, “one of the last of the gentleman ornithologists.” Ripley, who could also be described as a member of the gentleman’s bird club, remembered “coming from New York or Harvard to visit him when I was a student. At midday we would leave off looking at birds and proceed to the Philadelphia Club for luncheon, where he would often exercise his skill as a championship backgammon player. He was a perfect mentor– I enjoyed him extravagantly . . .” (Ripley 1986, 206).  Robert Ridgely, who followed Meyer de Schauensee at the Academy, also remembers him fondly: “As far as I am aware, Rudy only stepped foot in South America on one occasion, when in the mid-1920s he went with his friend James Bond on a visit to what is now known as Belém (then as Pará) at the mouth of the Amazon in Brazil.  They brought back some birds that ended up in the Academy collection – likely many of them bought in the market, which was still thriving when I first went there in 1971 – but never returned. Both then became pillars of the Bird Department at the Academy, and were for many years ‘dollar-a-year’ men (what a quaint old term that is).  Rudy ended up being very generous to the Academy as a whole and to the Bird Department in particular; we benefited tremendously from his energy, enthusiasm for Neotropical birds (he was responsible for the acquisition of large and very important collections from all of the Andean countries, except Argentina), and generosity. A great man” (R. Ridgely, pers. comm., 2010).