A history of herpetology at the American Museum of Natural History. Bulletin of the AMNH ; no. 252

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[New York] : American Museum of Natural History
Those who use and care for collections are subtly hindered if they lack understanding of the history of their collections. The present work provides a frame of reference for the American Museum's accumulations of Recent amphibians and reptiles for the department established to curate and use them. The herpetological holdings began in 1869 with purchase of the collection of Maximilian, Prince of Wied-Neuwied, and additional specimens began accumulating from other sources. But the signature and scope of the collection were most importantly determined by the explosion of expeditionary fever at the American Museum in early 20th century and by establishment of a department with curators charged with organizing and studying the incoming collections. A Department of Ichthyology and Herpetology was formalized in 1909 and later split in 1920. The original department had three ichthyologists and one herpetologist--Mary Cynthia Dickerson, who also served as editor of the American Museum Journal (= Natural History as of 1919) and as Curator of the old Department of Woods and Forestry. Despite an incredible workload, Dickerson threw herself into both herpetological exhibition work and collection building--two parts of a calculated tripartite effort at establishing a major herpetology department that could stand on its own with the older departments of the Museum. The third part of Dickerson's evolving program was a conscientious attempt at building a library and center for herpetological research. Frustrated in finding time for her own investigations, she deliberately sought young scholars who could independently conduct both field-work and collection-based research. She sent Emmett Reid Dunn on his first collecting trip and, by 1916-1917, Dickerson had attracted to her cause assistants Karl Patterson Schmidt, Gladwyn Kingsley Noble, and Charles Lewis Camp. In a few years, with interruption for military service, Dickerson's "triumvirate" was accomplishing work that would establish the department as the major research center that she had envisioned. Concurrent with her editorship of Natural History and her curatorship of Woods and Forestry, Dickerson established a robust program of herpetological exhibition and research in only a decade. Herpetology--her Department--was officially separated from Ichthyology in February 1920. But Dickerson had been losing a perilous grip on her sanity and, on Christmas Eve of that year, was committed to an asylum, where she died three years later at age 57. Assistant Curator G.K. Noble, age 27, was given formal charge of the Department beginning in 1921. Although K.P. Schmidt had resigned earlier, Noble arranged for Schmidt's return to help in a difficult transition, during which Noble completed his Ph.D. dissertation and Schmidt brought Dickerson's research to conclusion. Schmidt gave his final resignation in 1922, in order to take charge of the new Division of Reptiles and Amphibians at the Field Museum of Natural History. Noble inherited Dickerson's departmental philosophy and continued her emphasis on exhibition and on building the collection and bibliographic files, although his own research expanded dramatically. Noble never abandoned interest in fieldwork, anatomy, and collection-based systematics, but he combined those pursuits with increasing attention to laboratory-based, experimental investigations using techniques of endocrinology and neurology. In 1928, he received offers for positons at Cornell University and at Columbia University, the latter to replace geneticist Thomas Hunt Morgan (who was later awarded a Nobel Prize for his work at Columbia). With support from President Henry Fairfield Osborn and trustee Douglas Burden, Noble's request for new facilities was approved and he stayed at the Museum. The Department was renamed the Department of Herpetology and Experimental Biology in 1928, with Experimental Biology being split off as a separate department in 1933. Although Herpetology came to suffer as a result, Noble remained Curator of both departments until his death in December 1940 at age 47. Noble's "abrasive personality" has given rise to legends that do not stand up under examination, in particular the published claims that he was responsible for firing Assistant Curator Clifford H. Pope in 1935--the year of publication of Pope's Reptiles of China. Over Noble's protest, Pope was dismissed by Director Roy Chapman Andrews, who had become antipathetic to Noble's operation (ostensibly for budgetary reasons) after Osborn's departure as President. Charles M. Bogart, hired in 1936, became "Assistant Curator (In Charge)" of the Department of Herpetology after Noble's unexpected death in 1940. A new Director, Albert Parr, introduced the departmental title "Chairman" in 1942. Parr at that time also dissolved the Department of Vertebrate Paleontology and appointed Edwin H. Colbert as Chair of a new Department of Amphibians and Reptiles that included dinosaurs as well as pickled newts, despite George Gaylord Simpson's protest that "paleoherpetology and paleomammalogy have much more in common than either one has with its corresponding neozoological specialty." This was only one of several departmental reorganizations to which Herpetology and other departments have been subjected by administrative fiat, usually with noticeable loss of efficiency. Another reorganization followed shortly, with Bogert installed as Chairman. James A. Oliver was hired as Assistant Curator in 1942, but, after interruption for military service, he resigned in 1948 owing to deteriorating Museum finances. With Bogert's encouragement, Oliver later returned to New York as Curator of Reptiles at the New York Zoological Society; he subsequently served as Director of the American Museum from 1959 to 1969. In replacing Parr as Director, Oliver brought a renewed commitment to systematics in the Museum. Bogert's career (see Myers and Zweifel, 1993) needs to be understood in the larger context of the history of the Department, which owes much to his dedication and stabilizing influence at a time when Parr was de-emphasizing collections. Except for a few war-interrupted years with Assistant Curator Oliver, Bogert was the only Curator in Herpetology from 1940 to 1954. He held the collection as a reasonably well-curated unit during a long period of economic stress and severe understaffing. Richard G. Zweifel was hired as Assistant Curator in 1954. His term of chairmanship (1968-1980) is taken as the beginning of a "modern" age in the Department, which has continued to expand its collections and improve on the quality of their care. The evolution of curatorial procedure and specimen cataloguing is discussed; the catalogue data were transferred to an electronic database during 1992-1995. One reason for establishing a new department in 1909 had to do with the Museum's expanding exhibition program. Dickerson and Noble considered exhibition work to be of equal importance to research. Dickerson developed the concept of herpetological "habitat groups" (dioramas) by skillfully employing a variety of preparation techniques-especially wax casting-to create lifelike models engaged in vital activities within complex settings. In 1927, Noble opened a "Hall of Reptile and Amphibian Life" that incorporated Dickerson's habitat groups and many other newer, less elaborate groups and mounts; he developed the technique of paraffin infiltration to use the animals themselves as exhibited models. Noble's hall celebrated diversity and focused on isolated biological themes. Bogert and Zweifel built on this rich history by conceiving a more integrated exhibit that would stress the biology of amphibians and reptiles in parallel displays, a concept that eventually resulted in the 1977 "Hall of the Biology of Reptiles and Amphibians." Newer casts could be done in plastic, the best of which, if well painted, equaled in beauty the best of the old wax models. The herpetological exhibits and most curatorial research were made possible by Museum collecting activities. Insight is provided on early departmental fieldwork--a time when night collecting was a "new" technique made feasible by the introduction of acetylene (carbide) and electric lamps. Also discussed are some of the Museum's multidisciplinary expeditions, several of which continued for years. The Museum's great expeditionary period lasted at the outside from 1910 to 1940. Despite the Great Depression, the number of expeditions peaked not in the 1920's (about 114 starts) but in the 1930s (141 starts), owing to increasing numbers of independently financed expeditions conducted under Museum auspices. Any revival of the Era of Great Expeditions after World War II was precluded by a complex of factors, including changing administrative and economic environments in the Museum, as well as the coming age of the airplane and automotive transport. Logistically complicated expeditions were largely replaced by field trips that could more readily be initiated by the curators. The few expeditions still being organized are nostalgic reminders of another time, when collections now irreplaceable were being gathered from around the globe.
232 p. : ill. ; 26 cm.
Includes bibliographical references (p. 187-203) and index.