Linking Sources and Specimens: Dr. Mearns's Birds
Edgar Alexander Mearns (1856-1916) began his career as an army surgeon and ended up an honorary associate of the Smithsonian. He collected specimens everywhere the army sent him, and even spent much of his leave time in Washington studying in the collections of the U. S. National Museum (the former name of the National Museum of Natural History). At the time of his death in November, 1916, Secretary Walcott wrote to Mearns’s widow to share the official meeting minute adopted by the Smithsonian in memory of her husband. He wrote, “Some idea of the importance of his contributions to the National Museum may be gained from the fact that more than one-tenth of the entire collection of birds was made by him; of mammals he contributed many thousand; and his activities extended to almost every branch of zoology, botany, and ethnology. His published papers include 122 or more titles, chiefly on mammals, birds, and plants, the first appearing in 1878, the last about two weeks ago.”
But these specimens, among them over nine thousand birds, aren’t all that remain of Dr. Mearns’s collecting. His field books and bird lists are also here, and with this project, we’ve set out to explore the links between these papers and the birds they describe. This project began with a graduate student, Amy Kohout, who visited us to look at Mearns’s papers, and then asked if she might be able to see one of his birds. As we looked together at a purple heron collected in 1904 in the Philippines, we found ourselves asking all sorts of questions about Dr. Mearns’s process, life, and work: How did Mearns’s work as an army surgeon shape his collecting? Did he do a good job? How did he write about the specimens he collected? What can the birds help us to understand about his field notes? That initial conversation produced this project: a first look at what we can learn from bringing together historical and scientific inquiry to link Dr. Mearns’s papers with his birds.
We used Dr. Mearns’s careful notes — date, place, assigned field number — to match birds in the collection with specimens described in his papers. Below you’ll find ten birds, one for each place (or set of places) Dr. Mearns lived and worked. His work as a surgeon sent him all over the world, from his childhood home in Highland Falls, NY to army posts in the American West and across the Pacific to the Philippines. Later, his participation in collecting expeditions took him to Africa and back—twice! Bringing together Mearns’s birds and his field notes is one way to explore the rich context and varied stories behind the specimens in the museum — and the collectors who carefully preserved these materials for research and education.
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