The Age of Reptiles

The Age of Reptiles
The Age of Reptiles, a mural by Rudolph F. Zallinger. Copyright 1966, 1975, 1985, 1989 Peabody Museum of Natural History, Yale University. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

James Dana and the U.S. Exploring Expedition



Some of the oldest specimens in the Invertebrate Zoology collections come from the United States Exploring Expedition of 1838-1842. The Expedition was undertaken by the U.S. Navy and was accompanied by nine scientists and artists. They were charged with exploring, studying and surveying the Pacific Ocean. The Expedition circumnavigated the world, and crisscrossed the Pacific Ocean over the 4 years. Included among the scientists, was Yale geologist James D. Dana.

Originally the Expedition’s geologist, Dana took on the role of zoologist after Joseph Couthouy left the Expedition after clashing with its commander, Lt. Charles Wilkes. While rightfully renowned for his contributions to geology, Dana left his mark on the Invertebrate zoology community with his landmark monographs on the Zoophytes (Corals and Anemones) and Crustacea of the Exploring Expedition. The specimens of plants, birds, mammals, invertebrates, etc. and anthropological objects collected during the Expedition were the basis for the founding of the collections of Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of Natural History. Over the years, duplicates were sent to other museums such as the Peabody and Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. Many of Dana’s type specimens found their way to the Peabody from Dana himself and via exchanges during the Verrill years. Sadly, many of his Crustacea types were lost during the Great Chicago Fire, as they were being studied at the time by William Stimpson at the Chicago Academy of Sciences.

While sorting through a folder, labeled by Verrill as “Miscellaneous notes and drawings, Foreign and American,” I came across several important original illustrations made by Dana, very likely drawn aboard the vessel during the Expedition. Investigating further, two of the illustrations represent the original account of specimens that were described from life and apparently not retained. Therefore, the illustration above (YPM IZ 56758) of a species of Siphonophora described by Dana would be considered the holotype. This figure was reproduced in his publication on the description of Crystallomia polygonata. A second illustration (YPM IZ 56759) of a Polychaeta specimen was sent to W.C. Minor who described the new species Tomopteris danae from the figure and Dana’s description. These two illustrations are essentially the specimens. As they have been buried in the divisional archives for at least the last 100 years, they have been lost to subsequent revisers of these species. From a historical perspective, it would not be an understatement to suggest that these illustrations represent some of the most important holdings for the Division of Invertebrate Zoology and would have great value to any historian studying James Dana or the Exploring Expedition.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Lost Expedition


While cataloging some of Sidney Smith’s (left) correspondence, I came across an envelope marked “Woodruff Expedition.” Knowing Smith never went on said expedition, and having never heard of it, I was eager to see what the letters had to say. Inside were numerous letters to Smith discussing the proposed expedition and it soon became apparent why I had never heard of the “Woodruff Scientific Expedition around the World.” Many of the letters were from William G. Farlow, a botanist from Harvard. The letters expressed concern about the state of the expedition and lack of faith in the organizers of the expedition.

The “Woodruff Scientific Expedition around the World” was the idea of James O. Woodruff. He proposed a “floating school” which would take 200 students and cadets on a 2 year voyage. He had invited numerous scientists and naval officers to be faculty on board to teach things such as navigation, seamanship, zoology, botany, etc. His first attempt was to set sail in the fall of 1877. From the letters however, it became clear the organizers were having trouble securing enough students to make the trip a possibility. Originally, Woodruff was asking $5000 per student, a rather large sum of money for the time. By July of 1877, Smith and Farlow were increasingly skeptical at the chances for a successful departure and decided to remove themselves from association with the expedition. In fact, the tone of several of Farlow’s letters show he was quite agitated with the situation, suggesting Woodruff’s agents were not acting in good faith.

The expedition never did sail in 1877, supposedly due to a lack of an appropriate vessel, as explained in an article in the New York Times in October of 1877. A second attempt, scheduled to sail in May 1879, also failed. This time the cause was a lack of interested students. In June of 1879, James Woodruff’s dream of an around the world expedition ended with his untimely death at the age of 39. It’s rather sad the expedition never did sail as it would have been a great opportunity for not only the students, but the scientists on board. In the course of his career at Yale, Sidney Smith, a carcinologist, left his mark of the Peabody Museum’s crustacean collections, describing numerous taxa and publishing dozens of papers. He no doubt would have added great value to the expedition and to the Museum’s collections.

Friday, September 9, 2011

A different kind of masters

I’ve been working my way through the map cases in the Anthropology archives, beginning with Ben Rouse’s drawers and now moving into Mike Coe’s. I quickly learned that maps are only a small part of what is stored in these cases. Rouse has plenty of maps, including atlases from the dispute between the United States of Venezuela and British Guiana over their border, but also calendars with Japanese artwork and original figures from many of his publications. One of the more interesting things I found in Rouse’s drawers had to do with a reprint of an essay he wrote.

Now, reprints are not a terribly exciting thing to find in a museum archives but what I discovered was much more interesting. It was in an unopened package labeled “Archaeology Masters”. I expected to find some plates from Rouse’s master’s thesis but instead found the master plates for the lithograph of a reprint. The entire contents of the package were what appeared to be full size photo negatives of the pages of an article taped onto a grid layout, the full, uncut pages printed on cardstock, and the pages printed out on thin sheets of aluminum. These looked like printing plates but I was confused by the fact that I could read the printing on the aluminum instead of it being reversed for printing. With a little help from Barbara, we figured out that they were for offset printing. Before this I had seen drafts of papers and the final reprints and now I know what a few of the steps between look like; at least how it was done in the 60’s.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Human Parasite?

This story is the sort of gem I come across every now and then while sorting through the Invertebrate Zoology archives. A Dr. C. Ritter from Brooklyn, New York sent Addison Verrill a letter dated 16 Nov 1887, informing him he is sending a segment of tape worm removed from a “customer.” This isn’t as shocking as it sounds, as Verrill was one time the Connecticut state parisitologist. A note written on the letter by Verrill expressed doubt that it was a human parasite.

A subsequent letter from Carl Gissler, an invertebrate zoologist and acquaintance of Verrill’s, dated 22 Sep 1888, vouches for the authenticity of the specimen. He says he was present when the tapeworm proglottids were removed from the unfortunate man. I’ll leave it to the reader to look up how a person usually finds out they are infected by tapeworms. Gissler suggests it is either a Taenia, a common human tapeworm or Ligula, a genus of tapeworm found infecting fish. Unfortunately, I can find no specimen in the collection that relates to these letters. It is possible it was returned, but it would have been even more interesting to know the true identity of the parasite.

In today’s instant communication age, it’s interesting to read the conversations people such as Verrill were having through hand written correspondence. Answers could sometimes take months, if not years. Many of Verrill’s correspondence are requests for papers or specimens and the researchers could have to wait months to get the required information. Today we just send an email or go to the web.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Who gets credit?

As we begin to catalog our archives here at the Peabody Museum, those working on the project will occasionally post items of interest as they come across them. We are starting the cataloging process in the three divisions with the largest archive collections. So if Anthropology, Vertebrate Paleontology and Invertebrate Zoology interest you, check back often as we hope to post on a regular basis.

To start things off, I’ll be working through the Division of Invertebrate Zoology’s collections. I have worked in the division for the last 7 years and am looking forward to be able to put some order to the Division’s archives. Hopefully, going through the archives will add value to our more traditional collections and even answer some questions we have in regards to them.

Last week, I sorted some correspondence from Theodore Lyman to Addison Verrill. In one of those letters, Lyman was commenting on the then “American” way of attributing authors to taxonomic nomenclature. Verrill believed anyone could describe a species, but classifying that species correctly was more important. He would then attribute his name as author. This of course led to species being incorrectly attributed to Verrill, something we are still sorting out 130 years later. Lyman happened to agree with Verrill’s reasoning, and stated the “American” way would become dominant over the more traditional European method. The European method, which Lyman referred to as the “Scandinavian” method, retained the original author, even after the species was correctly classified; they simply made the author parenthetical. Thankfully the traditional method was retained, making taxonomists lives much easier than what Verrill was proposing.

I realize the preceding may not interest all of you, but as a zoologist, I enjoyed the insight it gave me into the evolving field of taxonomy in the mid-nineteenth century. It also gave me a more information on Addison Verrill, a very influential zoologist of the late 19th and early 20th century, someone who I’ll be writing more about in the future.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Peabody Receives “Hidden Collections” Grant

News Release
For immediate release:  April 26, 2011
Contact:  Melanie Brigockas, 203-432-5099, peabody.pr@yale.edu

The Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History is about to undertake a major electronic cataloguing project thanks to a $409,000 award from the Council for Library and Information Resources (CLIR) and the A.W. Mellon Foundation. The grant will enable the Museum to catalogue the archives and special collections of the Museum archives and its 11 curatorial divisions using its enterprise collections management system, KE EMu, which is an important goal for scientific and historical research.
Tim White, Peabody assistant director for collections who will oversee the project, noted that a variety of collections would be affected, including such items as paintings, sculptures, photographs, field notes and maps.  “Regardless of size or scope,” White said, “they individually and collectively tell an interesting story that we believe will benefit historians, biographers and scientists through access to all these materials.”
Called the “Hidden Collections” grant, the three-year project started in January and involves the hiring of additional staff to support it. Each division will initially survey its own archives and special collections. That information will be analyzed by a four-person committee headed by White “to draft a best practice for organizing, housing, cataloguing and mobilizing information for the Internet,” he said.
Peabody staff serving on the committee with White are Catherine Sease, senior conservator, who will work with the divisions on how the material will be restored and housed; Lawrence Gall, head of computer systems, who will work in developing online catalogues as materials from divisions are processed; and Annette Van Aken, project registrar, who will supervise the two hired museum assistants, Dan Drew and Nate Utrup, working with the divisions.
The committee will also receive input from Manuscripts and Archives at Sterling Library to determine the best practice for arrangement, housing and modes of access. White said the committee will begin with two or three collections and then rotate around to the other divisions.  Another aspect to be included in the project is oral histories. “Each division has a rich history, and much of the knowledge about our collections and institutions is tied to  our senior curators and staff,” White said.
White noted that Peabody was one of 17 institutions around the nation to receive a grant from CLIR and the Mellon Foundation, adding that with grant distribution ranging from $50,000 to $500,000, the museum received one of the larger ones.
“It was appealing to CLIR and the foundation that we’ve found a way to manage the information through library and archive standards. We will use both the ‘Darwin Core’ and ‘Dublin Core’   data structures that scientists and historians will be familiar with,” White said. “When completed, historians and scientists will be able to access information over a variety of different search engines. It’s a good way to bridge the gap between scientists and historians.”