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New York Zoological Society. Department of Ornithology. Office of Curator. William Beebe records

 Fonds
Identifier: 1008
This collection primarily includes materials from William Beebe's earliest years on the Bronx Zoo's curatorial staff. It includes a handwritten record of wild birds sighted in the Zoological Park during 1910, correspondence concerning the publication and sale of A Monograph of the Pheasants (Witherby & Co., 1918-1922), and one letter to Beebe from Arthur Erwin Brown, Superintendent of the Philadelphia Zoo. This collection also contains two scrapbooks Beebe compiled, primarily of clippings of his own writings on birds, circa 1895-1915, and an album of photographs dating from 1902-1903. The album includes photographs of Mary Rice Blair, Beebe's first wife, and her family around the time of their wedding; other photographs were taken during their 1902 trip to Nova Scotia and their 1903 trip to Florida. Additionally, portions of this collection predate Beebe's tenure with the Zoological Park and include catalogs of birds collected and skinned, 1896-1897, and student course notes from lectures by Frank M. Chapman, among others, circa 1894.

Dates

  • Majority of material found within circa 1894-1932

Creator

Access Restrictions

The clippings and photo albums are very fragile and may not be reproduced. Please contact the WCS Archives regarding possible additional access restrictions.

Usage Restrictions

Please contact the WCS Archives regarding possible usage restrictions.

Extent

0.4 linear feet (1 Hollinger box)

0.7 cubic feet (2 flat boxes)

Overview

William Beebe (1877-1962) was among the earliest of the curatorial staff of the Bronx Zoo, joining the Zoological Park in 1899 as Assistant Curator of Birds. He was Curator of Birds from 1902 through 1918, Honorary Curator of Birds from 1919 to 1962, and founding Director of the Department of Tropical Research. Portions of this collection, predating Beebe's tenure with the Zoological Park, include catalogs of birds collected and skinned, 1896-1897, and student course notes from lectures by Frank M. Chapman, among others, circa 1894. The collection includes a handwritten record of wild birds sighted in the Zoological Park during 1910 and correspondence concerning the publication and sale of A Monograph of the Pheasants (Witherby & Co., 1918-1922). Additionally, this collection includes two scrapbooks Beebe compiled, primarily of clippings of his own writings on birds, circa 1895-1915, and an album of photographs dating from 1902-1903.

Biographical Note

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 out 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. This theory was highly novel at the time, and it would be another seventy years before experiments would prove him right.

Although Beebe proffered complex theories and published in scientific journals, his impact was perhaps greatest felt 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 (1920). 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 perhaps 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, he 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 in their own settings.

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.

Arrangement

Records are arranged in two series:
Series 1
Subject files, circa 1894-1932, arranged chronologically and divided into four subseries: (1A) Catalogs, 1896-1910 (1B) Lecture notes, 1894-1905 (1C) Subject files, 1901-1909 (1D) Monograph of the pheasant records, 1911-1932
Series 2
Clippings and photo albums, circa 1895-1915

Acquisition Information

Internal transfer.
Title
Guide to the Records of New York Zoological Society Department of Ornithology Curator William Beebe, circa 1894-1932
Status
Published
Description rules
dacs

Revision Statements

  • June 2012: Finding aid revised and entered into Archivists’ Toolkit by Sarah Carbone, Long Island University.
  • February 2018: Finding aid revised and entered into ArchivesSpace by Sana Masood.

Repository Details

Part of the Wildlife Conservation Society Archives Repository

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