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New York Zoological Society. Office of General Director. John Tee-Van records

 Fonds — Multiple Containers
Identifier: 2024

Scope and Content

The collection consists mainly of the work of John Tee-Van as the General Director of the New York Zoological Society. It includes general correspondence related to the Zoo, correspondence, journals, photographs, and ephemera from Tee-Van’s 1941 trip to China to bring back two giant pandas, and materials related to the Zoo’s proposed Conservation Exhibit (1942-1958). The collection also contains correspondence from William Beebe (Director, Department of Tropical Research) and Fairfield Osborn (President, New York Zoological Society), and a collection of color transparencies taken by Tee-Van during the 1950s and 1960s.


  • 1939-1964


Access Restrictions

Please contact the WCS Archives regarding access restrictions.

Usage Restrictions

Please contact the WCS Archives regarding usage restrictions.

Biographical Note

John Tee-Van (1897-1967) was the General Director of the New York Zoological Park and Aquarium from 1956 to 1962 and worked a total of 51 years for the Zoo.

Tee-Van was born in Brooklyn, New York, on July 6, 1897. His father worked at the New York Zoological Park (known today as the Bronx Zoo) up until his death, and shortly after young John was hired. He began work as an Assistant Keeper of Birds in 1911, at the age of 14. Tee-Van studied architectural drafting in night school, and in 1916 he had an encounter with William Beebe, then Curator of Birds, which would quickly elevate him above cleaning birdcages. Beebe asked Tee-Van how he spent his time while not working, and when Tee-Van told him, Beebe asked him to draw a bird bone. His skill as a draftsman led to his appointment as an assistant in Beebe’s newly formed Department of Tropical Research, a post he held until 1924. In 1923 he married Helen T. Damrosch, an artist and naturalist who also worked with the Department of Tropical Research.

He became the Department of Tropical Research’s General Assistant from 1925-1930, then the General Associate from 1931-1941. Tee-Van accompanied Beebe on numerous expeditions, including to British Guiana, the West Indies, the Galapagos Islands aboard the Noma and Arcturus, the Sargasso Sea, Haiti aboard the Lieutenant Sam Mengel, Bermuda, and the coasts of Mexico, Colombia, and Venezuela. Many of Beebe’s books feature Tee-Van’s illustrations and photographs. Tee-Van gained fame as an ichthyologist, identified several new fish, and wrote scientific monographs. His expertise on fish led to him becoming the Editor in Chief of the publication Fishes of the Western North Atlantic in 1940.

In 1941, two young giant pandas were offered by Madame Chiang Kai-shek, the wife of the Chairman of the Nationalist Government of China, and her sister-in-law Madame H. H. Kung, to the organization United China Relief. The organization promised the pandas to the Bronx Zoo, and John Tee-Van was sent to bring them back from China. He left on September 25, 1941 on a journey to Chengdu, in southwest China. He was at sea in the Pacific on his return trip with the pandas during the attack on Pearl Harbor in December of that year but arrived safely in San Francisco a few days after. The pandas made it to the Zoo in good health, though there was trouble with procuring bamboo for them along the way. Tee-Van documented his entire journey to China in journals and photographs, and saved many mementos such as invitations, printed tickets, newspaper clippings, personal letters, and boarding passes.

After working in the Department of Tropical Research, Tee-Van continued to advance within the Zoological Society, becoming Executive Secretary of the Society from 1942 to 1952, Director of the New York Zoological Park and Aquarium from 1952 to 1956, and finally the General Director of the New York Zoological Park and Aquarium, 1956-1962. He was given an honorary Doctorate of Science from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1955 and was also active in many clubs and organizations, serving as Chairman of the Museum Council of New York City (1945-1948), President of the New York Academy of Sciences (1954), President of the Explorers Club (1951-1952), Vice President of the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists (1951-1954), and Vice President of the Boone & Crockett Club (1955-1957).

In 1961, the Zoo honored Tee-Van for his 50 years of service. He was presented with a gold medal for his achievement, and said in his acceptance speech, “I want to give my blessing to the millions of animals I have known.” This love of animals is apparent in Tee-Van’s life: His fellow scientists named several species after him, so a termite, a crustacean, two types of flies, two fish, and two mollusks all have names that end in “-teevani.” He held the title of General Director Emeritus from 1962 on and continued to be involved with the Zoo. John Tee-Van died at the age of 70 in Sherman, Connecticut, on November 5, 1967.


2.5 Linear Feet (2 cartons, 4 flat boxes, 1 glass slide box)

Language of Materials



John Tee-Van (1897-1967) worked for the New York Zoological Society for 51 years, starting as Assistant Keeper of Birds in 1911 and working his way up to General Director of the New York Zoological Park and Aquarium in 1956, and General Director Emeritus in 1962. This collection consists of Tee-Van’s papers relating to the Office of the General Director (1939-1962), his trip to China in 1941 to bring back two giant pandas, and the Zoo’s proposed Conservation Exhibit (1942-1958). The collection consists of correspondence, speeches, administrative files, photographs (including color transparencies), news clippings, journals, datebooks, architectural proposals, and other ephemera. The collection also contains correspondence from William Beebe (Director, Department of Tropical Research) and Fairfield Osborn (President, New York Zoological Society).


This collection is arranged in three series, with additional subseries divisions:

Series 1
Office of the General Director, 1939-1962 Subseries 1A: Correspondence, arranged alphabetically Subseries 1B: Speeches, arranged alphabetically Subseries 1C: Zoo administrative records, arranged chronologically Subseries 1D: Datebooks, arranged chronologically Subseries 1E: Photographs
Series 2
Giant pandas, 1937-1953 Subseries 2A: Correspondence, 1941-1947 Subseries 2B: Journal, 1941 Subseries 2C: Press coverage, 1937-1953 Subseries 2D: Photographs Subseries 2E: Travel expenses, 1941-1942
Series 3
Conservation Exhibit, 1942-1958 Subseries 3A: Correspondence, arranged chronologically Subseries 3B: Proposals and planning

Related Collections

Collection 1005A-J. Department of Tropical Research various records, 1900-1971.

Collection 1016. Department of Tropical Research additional records, 1900-1971.

Collection 1017. William Beebe and John Tee-Van records, 1909-1947.

Items Separated

Nitrate negatives in subseries 2D have been separated.

Processing and Finding Aid Information

Collection processed and finding aid created by Shayna Marchese, Queens College, November 2011.

Shayna Marchese, Queens College
November 2011
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Code for undetermined script

Repository Details

Part of the Wildlife Conservation Society Archives Repository

WCS Library/Archives
2300 Southern Blvd
Bronx New York 10460 United States