William Beebe collection of memorabilia
This collection consists of illustrations, photographs, artifacts, and other visual materials collected by New York Zoological Society Curator of Ornithology and Department of Tropical Research Director William Beebe. Although the items were created between approximately 1749 and 1960, the bulk of the collection dates from between the 1920s and 1940s and was likely collected by Beebe during this time. It is possible that the items were kept in his Department of Tropical Research Laboratory office at the Bronx Zoo.
The collection features a wide range of subjects, from animals to Beebe’s acquaintances and his own fame. A significant portion of the collection includes illustrations and other artworks, particularly of animals, in many cases likely given to Beebe by the artists. Also within the collection are several caricatures and busts of Beebe. Among the identified artists represented in this collection are Isabel Cooper, Dwight Franklin, Robert Horsfall, Marguerite Kirmse, Charles Knight, and Walter King Stone. This collection additionally includes photographs, many of Beebe’s acquaintances, as well as one of a seahorse taken and signed by Jean Painlevé. Rounding out the collection are ephemera such as bookplates, honorary diplomas, and autographs from two authors Beebe admired, Rudyard Kipling and Lord Dunsany.
Please note that this collection does not include the specimen illustrations created by Department of Tropical Research staff artists under Beebe’s direction; these are found in WCS Archives Collection 1039.
- circa 1749-1960
- Majority of material found within 1920 - 1949
3.4 Cubic Feet (9 flat boxes)
3 Items (Busts on open shelving)
Charles William Beebe (known as William) was born July 29, 1877 in Brooklyn, New York. The only child of newspaper executive Charles Beebe and Henrietta Younglove Beebe, William grew up in East Orange, New Jersey, where he developed a deep love of the natural world. Although he was fascinated by all creatures, he honed his early knowledge in the field of ornithology.
By 1899, he had become well known among ornithologists, and when the soon-to-be opened Bronx Zoo sought an individual to be responsible for its developing bird collection, Beebe came highly recommended. He was hired as Assistant Curator of Ornithology in 1899 and quickly became the Zoo’s first Ornithology Curator—in spite of not yet having finished his undergraduate degree from Columbia University. In fact, Beebe never completed the degree, but he was later awarded honorary doctorates from Tufts University and Colgate University.
In his early years at the Bronx Zoo, Beebe continued to develop his reputation as an ornithology scholar, writing several books and traveling across the world to study birds and collect specimens for the Bronx Zoo. Between 1918 and 1922, he published a monumental, four-volume study, The Monograph of the Pheasants, based on research he undertook across Asia in 1910 and 1911. Many of the pheasant species he saw during this expedition had never been observed by Americans and Europeans, and his observations of sexual dimorphism in pheasants made him the first biologist to correctly understand the mechanism by which sexually dimorphic varieties of animals found mates.
Although Beebe developed complex theories and published in scientific journals, his impact was perhaps greatest as an author of scientific works for a popular audience. A highly engaging writer, Beebe penned more than twenty books, including many bestsellers such as The Log of the Sun (1906) and Jungle Peace (1918). By the 1920s, Beebe was celebrated as a famous explorer-naturalist who included Theodore Roosevelt, A. A. Milne, Walt Disney, and Rube Goldberg among his friends.
His celebrity status continued to swell during the 1920s and 1930s as Beebe turned more toward expeditionary fieldwork. In 1916, he gained permission from the New York Zoological Society (the parent organization of the Bronx Zoo, known today as the Wildlife Conservation Society) to found the Society’s first tropical research station in what was then British Guiana. As Director of NYZS’s Department of Tropical Research, and he devoted the rest of his life to leading the study of animals in the wild. The DTR’s more than fifty expeditions took Beebe and his staff across South America and the Caribbean, to sites both terrestrial and oceanographic.
Today Beebe is best known today for his pioneering deep sea exploration during the 1930s in a small submersible called the Bathysphere. By the time Beebe turned to the sea, the study of the ocean was not new: the Challenger expeditions of the 1870s had spawned dozens of other expeditions and the development of research stations that would advance the young science of oceanography. Yet until the DTR’s Bathysphere expeditions, no one had descended into the ocean’s abyss to observe its strange, wondrous inhabitants in their own environments. While some naturalists were trying to capture and identify as many marine creatures as possible across the world’s oceans, the DTR attempted to understand the lives of animals where they lived.
During the Bathysphere dives, which Beebe undertook between 1930 and 1934 with the Bathysphere’s engineer Otis Barton, Beebe captured the world’s attention by descending progressively deeper into the ocean than any human had ventured before, and Barton and Beebe eventually performed their deepest dive to 3,028 feet on August 15, 1934. At the same time that these records were widely celebrated, Beebe’s discoveries during these expeditions also inspired generations of influential marine life researchers, including Sylvia Earle, Robert Ballard, and Rachel Carson. Carson dedicated her 1951 work The Sea Around Us to Beebe, writing, “My absorption in the mystery and meaning of the sea have been stimulated, and the writing of this book aided, by the friendship and encouragement of William Beebe.”
While Beebe and his staff published dozens of technical papers throughout the course of the DTR’s existence between the 1910s and the 1960s and discovered several species, he wielded his greatest influence through the hundreds of articles he wrote for the popular press. He did much to make science accessible to a general public, and perhaps most important, he used his popularity to urge people to care about the world’s rapidly vanishing wildlife. Even as early as 1906, he made his case for the exigency of conservation in an argument so poignant that it remains often quoted still today: “The beauty and genius of a work of art may be reconceived, though its first material expression be destroyed; a vanished harmony may yet again inspire the composer; but when the last individual of a race of living things breathes no more, another Heaven and another Earth must pass before such a one can be again.”
In 1962, while working at his beloved Simla research station in Trinidad, William Beebe died of pneumonia. He was survived by his wife, the romance novelist Elswyth Thane, and his longtime research partner and companion, Jocelyn Crane. According to his wishes, he was buried in Trinidad.
- Caricatures of William Beebe, circa 1920s-1950s
- Original artwork, circa 1749-1938 [bulk 1910s-1930s]
- Other ephemera, 1911-1951
- Photographs, 1910-1936
- Portraits, circa 1907-1920s
- Guide to the William Beebe collection of memorabilia
- Madeleine Thompson
- June 2017
- Description rules
- Language of description
- Collection processing and finding aid creation for this collection was made possible through the National Historical Publications and Records Commission Access to Historical Records grant program.