The herpetological collections of The Field Museum of Natural History date from 1893 when the institution was known as the Columbian Museum of Chicago. From a small collection consisting mostly of specimens purchased from Ward's Natural History Establishment of Rochester, New York, the collection has grown to over 290,000 specimens.
The museum's first location was in Jackson Park, six miles south of the current site, in the Palace of Fine Arts Building that was built during the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893. The present building in Grant Park was finished in 1920 and opened to the public on May 2, 1921.
The Division’s earliest curators were tasked with overseeing both ichthyological and herpetological collections. Oliver Perry Hay was the first Assistant Curator in charge of herpetological specimens and is considered the first curator of ichthyology and herpetology at The Field Museum. Hay was succeeded by Seth Eugene Meek in 1896. Although Meek was best known for his work in ichthyology, he described several species of amphibians and reptiles and instituted scientific exchange programs with several international museums. Meek died in 1914 while on staff and was replaced by ichthyologist Carl Leavitt Hubbs in 1917. In 1921, Alfred Cleveland Weed succeeded Hubbs and was responsible for arranging for the transfer of all ichthyological and herpetological collections from Jackson Park to the new building in Grant Park.
Karl Patterson Schmidt joined The Field Museum of Natural History in August 1922 as Assistant Curator and was the first staff member devoted solely to the newly renamed Division of Amphibians and Reptiles. In 1922, the Field Museum herpetology collection consisted of less than 8,000 specimens, representing approximately 3,245 catalog entries. By the time Schmidt became Chief Curator of Zoology in 1941, the collection had increased to 50,000 specimens representing 36,612 catalog entries. In a twenty-year span, Schmidt turned a small collection into one of the larger herpetological collections in the world.
Herpetological fieldwork at the Field Museum flourished during Schmidt's tenure. His first expedition was to Belize and Honduras in 1923. In 1926, he visited Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Chile. The West Indies, Panama, the Galapagos Islands, and the islands of the Pacific were visited during the Crane Pacific Expedition in 1928 and 1929. In the 1930s, he traveled to Guatemala and Peru. In the 1940s and 1950s, he did field work in Arizona, Texas, and northern Mexico. He published extensively on his fieldwork, naming at least twelve genera and over two-hundred species and subspecies of amphibians and reptiles.
Schmidt's contributions to herpetology and zoology while at The Field Museum were myriad. His research, field work, collection curation, collaborations, sponsorship of beginning scientists, and bibliophilia are all reflected in the Division's collections and reputation. By the end of his career, Schmidt had written almost 150 books and papers on herpetology. His great interest in herpetological literature formed the foundation of what might be considered the largest private collection in the world. Schmidt donated the 15,000+ titles to The Field Museum for use by researchers and staff.
Schmidt retired in 1955 with the title of Curator Emeritus of Zoology. Schmidt's life was brought to a premature end during his sixty-eighth year. He died on September 26, 1957 from the effects of the bite of a juvenile boomslang (Dispholidus typus) that he received the previous day. Schmidt disregarded the seriousness of the bite and did not try to counteract the effects of the venom.
Clifford Hillhouse Pope, an acknowledged expert on Chinese herpetofauna, joined the Division of Amphibians and Reptiles on June 1, 1940. He participated in the Central Asiatic Expeditions to China led by Roy Chapman Andrews. Schmidt's collaboration with Pope on the study of Chinese amphibians and reptiles indirectly led to Pope's succeeding Schmidt as curator.
While at The Field Museum, Pope's research interests included the distribution and taxonomy of salamanders of the eastern United States, the action of snake venom, snake bite, and the development of rattlesnake rattles along with regional herpetological surveys. In addition to scholarly work, Pope was also partially responsible for moving the herpetological collection to the ground floor due to structural and space limitations on the third and fourth floors. The move increased much needed storage and provided space for the Division's single most significant purchase-- the Edward Harrison Taylor collection of 35,000 specimens, which was accessioned beginning in 1959. This collection, much of which is cited in the herpetological literature, includes many type specimens, caecilians and skeletons. Its geographic strengths include Mexico, Costa Rica, Liberia, Sri Lanka, and Thailand.
Robert Frederick Inger's association with the museum began as a volunteer for Karl P. Schmidt in the Division of Amphibians and Reptiles during the 1940s. After studying Zoology at the University of Chicago, Inger was hired by Schmidt as Assistant in the Division of Amphibians and Reptiles. He held this position until he was appointed Assistant Curator of Fishes in 1949. Inger succeeded Clifford Pope as Curator of Amphibians and Reptiles on January 1, 1954.
Early in his career, Inger began to specialize in the ecology, systematics and zoogeography of the herpetofauna and ichthyofauna of Southeast Asia, especially the amphibians. Since 1950 his research has concentrated on the ecology of communities of amphibians and reptiles in Bornean forests, a project that continues to the present. Robert Inger's fieldwork began in 1950 with his first trip to Borneo. Since that trip he has returned to Borneo over sixteen times. He has also conducted fieldwork in peninsular Malaysia, Thailand, India, China, Brunei, and Zaire. A substantial part of the Division's collections consists of specimens Inger has collected. His Bornean fieldwork alone has added over 41,500 specimens. Inger's collections contain extremely large series accompanied by detailed field notes. Though Inger retired in September 1994, he continues a full-time schedule of lab and field work as Curator Emeritus and celebrated his 90th birthday in 2010.
Hymen Marx joined the Division on February 1, 1949 as the first full-time Assistant in the Division of Amphibians and Reptiles. In 1960, he became Assistant Curator of Amphibians and Reptiles, a position he held until 1964. He was promoted to Associate Curator in 1965 and to Curator in 1973. Marx's research interests included the herpetofauna of Egypt, the systematics and zoogeography of the vipers, the phyletics of morphological characters, the application of phyletic character analysis to convergent snake species, and the application of Sharrock and Felsenstein's combinatorial method to phylogenetic studies.
Marx retired in 1990 and was appointed Curator Emeritus in 1991. He left the Chicago area in 1994 and died in 2007.
Harold Knight Voris, a graduate of the University of Chicago and a colleague and former student of Robert Inger, joined the Division in 1973 as Assistant Curator of Amphibians and Reptiles. He was promoted to Associate Curator in 1978 and to Curator in 1984. Voris has held several extra-divisional and extra-museum posts: Associate Program Director in the Systematic Biology Program of the National Science Foundation (1981-82), Assistant to the Director of the Field Museum (1983-84), and Vice President of Collections and Research (1985-89). In 1989, he returned to the Division as Curator and Head, and in addition, served as scientific editor of Fieldiana from 1990-93.
Voris's research program comprises several areas of work, most notably on aquatic snakes based in Southeast Asia. The fieldwork of Voris, while on the Division staff, began with ten months in Malaysia and Indonesia in 1974 and 1975. During the period from 1974 to the present, he has made over 25 trips to conduct research, and make collections at sites in China, Indonesia, peninsular Malaysia, East Malaysia (Sabah and Sarawak), Singapore and Thailand. The collections are important because they contain extremely large series accompanied by detailed field notes. Over one-thousand skeletal preparations were made from this material by a very dedicated volunteer, Sophie Brunner, and the resulting collection, the "Sophie Ann Brunner Marine Snake Osteological Collection," was named in her honor in 1990.
Voris retired in 2008 and relocated with his wife Helen to North Carolina where he continues his research as a Curator Emeritus.
Anna Graybeal was Assistant Curator in the Division during 1997 and 1998. Her research involved the evolution of bufonid frogs. Graybeal participated in field work in Madagascar. She was one of the principal investigators on a National Science Foundation collection support proposal that received funding. She left the museum to pursue a Ph.D. in clinical psychology at the University of Texas and is currently a clinical psychologist in private practice.
Alan Resetar began in 1974 as a volunteer while at Purdue University. He became collection manager in 1976. He served until 1984, left the museum to obtain a master's degree and experience life in the outside world, and returned in 1990.
Due to curatorial vacancies, Resetar is Acting Divisional Manager and Collection Manager. He manages the day-to-day use of the collection and participates in the training and supervision of interns, volunteers, and students who work with the collection. He has upgraded the collection’s physical condition; organized and conserved its assemblage of field notes; and emphasized the verification of collection localities. He also manages the Karl P. Schmidt Memorial Library.
In 2000, Maureen Kearney brought her research program in morphological evolution in squamates to the Division and was hired as an Associate Curator. The Division served as a meeting place for Kearney’s collaborative NSF Tree of Life project from 2003-2010. The project provided the Division with an extensive addition of cleared and stained specimens. She was instrumental in the receipt of the amphisbaenian collection and associated library of Carl Gans. She left the museum in 2008 to serve as a Program Director for the National Science Foundation.
In 2001, construction began on the Collection Resource Center (CRC), a state-of-the-art shared storage facility. Beginning in 2005, herpetological specimens were relocated to the CRC; in addition to storage, the facility provided divisional wet labs, a cryogenics storage room for tissues and DNA, a dark room, and histology lab. The CRC is located adjacent to the current Field Museum building and is completely underground.
Kathleen Kelly joined the Division in August 2006 as the Collections Assistant. In addition to collection-based work, assisting visiting researchers, and supervising volunteers and interns, she serves as a museum-wide resource for packing and shipping Dangerous Goods internationally and for Integrated Pest Management.