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Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
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Department of Vertebrate Zoology

Division of Birds

Alexander Wetmore
Alexander Wetmore, 1900
Smithsonian Institution Archives
Section from Bird Division Hall of Fame

This assemblage of photographs portrays some of the most influential deceased or retired ornithologists associated with the nation’s museum of natural history in Washington, D.C. Once the U. S. National Museum and now the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, the museum’s scientific productivity was manifestly enhanced by many ornithologists who were not Smithsonian employees but were associated with what was first the Division of Economic Ornithology and Mammalogy of U. S. Dept. of Agriculture, which was succeeded by the Bureau of the Biological Survey, then the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and what is now a part of the U. S. Geological Survey. The bird collections of the Biological Survey were transferred to the U. S. National Museum in 1889 and merged with those of the Smithsonian in 1946; responsibility for the entire collection has been shared jointly since then. Included in this gallery are three former Secretaries of the Smithsonian and three Chiefs of the Biological Survey and its predecessor. Not all the persons in this gallery held positions equivalent to the modern Curator, but those who did not were also instrumental in developing Washington as the next major focal point of American ornithology after Philadelphia. To Washington came the historically noted collections of the Exploring Expedition and the Federally sponsored railroad and boundary surveys. Some individuals, such as Coues and Shufeldt, were never paid staff members, but earned their place here through their contributions to, and use of, the collections for research publications. Both, like many other early American ornithologists such as Bendire and Mearns, got their start in Federal service as medical officers in U. S. Army. Emphasis at first was understandably on the North American avifauna, but the research interests of the scientific staff expanded the museum’s horizons to the West Indies, Mexico and Central and South America, Africa, eastern, southern, and south-east Asia, Oceania, Australasia, and Antarctica, whence original collections of birds were made expressly for the museum in Washingon. Descriptions of new species and subspecies flowed from the museum’s publications and elsewhere, raising the number of type specimens to many thousands. In addition to systematics and biogeography, the museum’s staff have also made substantial contributions to the anatomy and paleontology of birds as well. The collections have continued to expand not just in quantity but in quality and scope as well so that the numbers of species and individuals of birds represented as skeletons and fluid preserved specimens are unsurpassed and the skin and tissue collections are among the top five in the world. Now, Washington is one of the most important destinations in the world for museum-based studies of birds and we take this opportunity to show you some of the faces of those who made it so. <read less>

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