Zoology: History

The Department of Zoology traces its origin to the foundation of The Field Museum in 1893. At the inception of the department, its title "Department of Zoology, except Ornithology," reflected the existence of Ornithology as a separate department. Curator C. B. Cory had donated his collection of 19,000 bird specimens to the museum in exchange for departmental status for Ornithology, and his appointment as lifetime curator without residence obligations. The Department of Ornithology, with Curator Cory and Assistant Curators, G. K. Cherrie and N. Dearborn, remained separate for six years.

In this early period, Curator D. G. Elliot, an eminent mammalogist and ornithologist, led Zoology (except Ornithology) with Assistant Curators O. P. Hay and later S. E. Meek. Despite their specialty in ichthyology, both assistant curators worked in all non-ornithological fields of zoology. Meek's collections of Mexican and Central American Fishes made our collection of fishes a world-renown resource. The first Assistant Curator hired with responsibility for a specific animal group was W. J. Gerhard, appointed in Entomology in 1900.

Taxidermist C. Akeley was hired into the Department of Zoology in 1895. During Akeley's fourteen years with the Museum, he perfected his sculptural methods in taxidermy and created vivid depictions of animals in their natural habitats - an idea so beautifully executed at The Field Museum that it became the standard to which all museums aspired. However, Akeley was not the only pioneering taxidermist in Field Museum history; L. L. Walters, at the Museum for forty-three years beginning in 1911, perfected new techniques to prepare animals, such as amphibians and rhinoceroses, that could not be prepared with standard methods of the time.

In 1906, the loss of Cory's personal fortune left him unable to support his appointment in Ornithology, and when Elliot resigned to return to New York, Cory was named Curator of the newly-unified Department of Zoology - an appointment that lasted until his death in 1921. During this interval, Zoology flourished, assistant curators were appointed for the divisions of Osteology (E. N. Gueret in 1906), Mammalogy and Ornithology (W. H. Osgood in 1909), Ichthyology and Herpetology (C. L. Hubbs in 1916, replaced by A. C. Weed in 1920). The Division of Oology was created in 1917 around the bird egg collection donated by Judge R. M. Barnes. Barnes retained his appointment as absentee curator of the Division of Oology until his death in 1945, when the egg collection was incorporated into the Division of Birds.

The year 1921 brought several changes, among them Cory's death and the appointment of W. H. Osgood as Curator of Zoology. The names of the zoology divisions, Conchology (the only division without its own curator), Entomology, Herpetology, Ichthyology, and Mammalogy and Ornithology were anglicized in 1921 although Osteology remained unchanged. Mammalogy and Ornithology were also established as separate divisions. E. Heller became Assistant Curator of Mammals through 1927 and J. T. Zimmer took that role in Birds through 1930. A. C. Weed focused on Fishes, and K. P. Schmidt became Assistant Curator of Reptiles and Amphibians the following year.

In 1922, C. E. Hellmayr was named the first Associate-level Curator in Zoology. Hellmayr's specialty in Neotropical birds was a major impetus to the development of what has now become a major international resource in that area at The Field Museum. C. B. Cory had begun what was to become the eleven-part, fifteen volume "The Catalogue of Birds of the Americas" in 1918; Hellmayr's task was to complete it, which he did in 1949 with the assistance of C. B. Conover. With Osgood's guidance and encouragement, Conover had developed from a wealthy young sportsman to a scientific ornithologist, who not only contributed to the completion of the Catalogue, but earned the status "Benefactor" through his long relationship with The Field Museum. The donation of his personal bird collection increased the Museum's holdings dramatically and, through his efforts, "The Catalogue of Birds of the Americas" remains a foundational taxonomic text.

In the 1920's, Field Museum collections grew with museum expeditions to Africa, South America and the Pacific led by staff from Birds, Mammals and Amphibians and Reptiles, as well as individuals such as Captain Marshall Field, members of the Roosevelt family, and Conover. The expeditions increasingly focused on building research collections rather than gathering material solely for public exhibits.

Expeditions continued at a reduced pace during the 1930's. Schmidt traveled to Guatemala and Peru to collect specimens. The curator of Birds, W. R. Boulton from 1931-1946 collected in West Africa, Angola and the Kalahari Desert. In 1935, E. R. Blake, hired in Birds, furthered the collections of Neotropical birds through trips to South America.

In 1936, changes in curatorial titles reflected increasing scientific professionalism among museum staff. The Curator of Zoology became the "Chief Curator," Assistant Curators became Curators, and Assistants, including E. R. Blake in Birds and D. D. Davis in Osteology (renamed Vertebrate Skeletons), became Assistant Curators. During the depths of the Great Depression, the Workers' Progress Administration (WPA) funded additional positions at the Museum, which resulted in dramatic increases in curatorial activity.

In 1938, F. Haas, a researcher renowned for his study of fresh-water mollusks, fled Nazi Germany and was appointed as Curator of Lower Invertebrates. Haas' efforts extended beyond his scientific research to opening the crates of invertebrate specimens that had been closed after the 1893 World Columbian Exposition. These specimens, representing a frequently over-looked aspect of animal diversity, were re-identified, rehoused and catalogued to form the foundation of what has become a world-class collection of invertebrates, with a strong emphasis on mollusks. The second Assistant Curator of Insects at The Field Museum was J. E. Liljeblad, appointed to join W. J. Gerhard in 1936. Liljeblad was replaced by R. L. Wenzel in 1940. Wenzel, who retired in 1981, subsequently served The Field Museum as an active Curator Emeritus for 25 years. In 1941, H. S. Dybas joined the staff as an assistant, and moved to Assistant Curator status in 1946. Dybas retired to become Curator Emeritus in 1980.

With W. H. Osgood's retirement from duties of Chief Curator of Zoology in 1940, K. P. Schmidt served in that position for the next fifteen years. Schmidt's promotion opened a position in Reptiles that was filled by C. H. Pope. In Fishes, L. P. Woods was hired as Assistant Curator in 1941. His career at The Field Museum, despite interruptions during the 1940's, would last through 1978, and produced significant growth of both the freshwater and marine fish collections. During World War II, many museum careers were suspended as staff participated in the war efforts. Volunteers in the Division of Birds, E. T. Smith, founder of the Women's Board, and M. Grey in the Division of Fishes, were practically the only staff in their divisions during these years.

In 1946, R. F. Inger began working as a part-time assistant in the Division of Amphibians and Reptiles while he conducted his doctoral research. He was appointed Assistant Curator of Fishes in 1949, and continued in that position until 1953. P. Hershkovitz was appointed as Assistant Curator of Mammals in 1947; he became Curator in 1956 and Research Curator in 1962. H. Hoogstraal was Assistant Curator of Insects from 1947-48. Hoogstraal continued a strong association with the Museum through his field collections for many divisions, mostly as part of the Naval Medical Research Unit. In 1955, Schmidt became the first member of the Museum staff elected to the National Academy of Sciences.

A. L. Rand served as Curator of Birds from 1947 until 1955, when on Schmidt's retirement, he became Chief Curator of Zoology. H. Marx was appointed as assistant in the Division of Amphibians and Reptiles in 1949, became Assistant Curator in 1960, and moved through the curatorial ranks to become Curator in 1973.

After fifty years in the Division of Insects, Curator Gerhard retired to become Curator Emeritus in 1950. Rand became Chief Curator of Zoology in 1955, holding that post until 1970. Inger succeeded Pope as Curator of Amphibians and Reptiles in 1954. In 1956, M. Traylor became Assistant Curator of Birds, appointed in recognition of his contributions to the division since 1937 as an expedition collector and unpaid associate. Despite his retirement in 1980, Traylor continued his work as Curator Emeritus well into the 2000s.

A. Solem was appointed in 1956 as Assistant Curator of Invertebrates, sharing duties of the Division of Invertebrates with Haas until Haas retired in 1958. Solem, an exceptionally productive researcher, built large collections of land snails, especially from Pacific islands and Australia. J. Moore served as Curator of Mammals from 1961-1971.

K. P. Schmidt's retirement ended prematurely on September 26, 1957 when he was bitten by a poisonous snake that had been brought to The Field Museum for identification. Schmidt disregarded the seriousness of the bite of the juvenile boomslang (Dispholidus typus) and did not try to counteract the effects of the venom. The notes he made on the progression of his symptoms were published in a posthumous scientific paper (Copeia 1958(4): 280-282).

The Department of Zoology achieved its current form - in which all specimens of a group are maintained within a single division - in 1972. After D. Davis' 1964 retirement, K. F. Liem took charge of the Division of Vertebrate Skeletons, the final incarnation of Osteology, previously Anatomy and Osteology (and Vertebrate Anatomy). Liem's acceptance of a position at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard resulted in the division being dissolved and its collections dispersed to their taxonomically appropriate divisions. Around this time, the administrative head of the Department of Zoology changed from an appointed Chief Curator to a Chair elected from among the curatorial staff.

Additions to the curatorial staff in the 1970s included R. K. Johnson, who rose to the rank of Curator and was Department Chair from 1980-1986, and J. Kethley, appointed as Assistant Curator in 1970. Inger left the Division of Amphibians and Reptiles to become Chairman of Scientific Programs for the Museum and later Assistant Director of Science and Education, returning in 1978 to his curatorial position from which he retired as Curator Emeritus in 1996. H. K. Voris joined Zoology in 1973 as Assistant Curator of Amphibians and Reptiles. He later served the Museum as Assistant to the Director of The Field Museum (1983-84), and Vice President of Collections and Research (1985-89), returning to a curatorial role in 1989. C. Jones was Assistant Curator of Invertebrates from 1974-1977, and D. J. Stewart was Assistant Curator of Fishes from 1978-1985. J. W. Fitzpatrick curated Birds from 1978 to 1989, and later served as Department Chair.  The Division of Mammals had several people assume curatorships in the 1970s, only to vacate them shortly afterwards, including L. de la Torre (1970-1976), J. J. Pizzimenti (1973-1976), R. Turner (1976), and P. W. Freeman (1976-1980).

In 1980, R. M. Timm (1980-1986) was hired as Assistant Curator of Mammals and L. Watrous (1980-1984) was hired as Assistant Curator in the Division of Insects, as was J. S. Ashe (1982-1988). With Freeman's departure, B. D. Patterson joined the staff as Assistant Curator of Mammals in 1981, later becoming Chairman of Scientific Support Service (1983-1986), and MacArthur Curator of Mammals (1996).  With Watrous' departure, A. Newton became Assistant Curator of Insects in 1985 and Associate Curator in 1991.  With Timm's departure, L. R. Heaney was hired in 1988, eventually becoming Curator of Mammals.  Curator of Birds S. M. Lanyon (1985-1995) and Curator of Fishes, B. Chernoff (1987- 2002) served as Departmental Chairs. Lanyon was instrumental in establishing the shared interdepartmental Biochemistry Laboratories at The Field Museum, now the Pritzker Lab for Molecular Systematics and Evolution.

Changes in Zoology at The Field Museum in the 1990s kept pace with rapid advances in zoological science. After the sudden death of A. Solem in 1990, the department strengthened its commitment to invertebrate zoology. Curator of Invertebrates R. Bieler (Department Chair 1998-2002) and Associate Curator J. Voight were the first marine malacologists in Field Museum history. Curator of Fishes M. Westneat (1991-2013) added functional morphology to specialties represented among the staff and further strengthened the museum’s marine component. A. T. Peterson (1992-1993) served briefly as Assistant Curator in the Division of Birds. The Assistant Curator appointments in 1995 of J. W. O. Ballard (Insects, 1995-2001), S. Hackett (Birds) and J. Bates (Birds) brought additional research programs focused on molecular phylogenetics and evolution. Hackett became the Richard and Jill Chaifetz Associate Curator of Birds in 2011, and Bates led the department as its Chairman 2003-2011.  A. Graybeal was Assistant Curator in the Amphibians and Reptiles Division from 1997 to 1998. In 1999, P. Goldstein (1999-2005) became Assistant Curator in the Insect Division.

In 2000, M. Kearney (2000-2008) brought her research program in morphological evolution in squamates to the Division of Amphibians and Reptiles. In 2000, the department also established tenure-track positions for long-time Adjunct Curators in Insects, P. Sierwald and M. Thayer. Both are now Associate Curators who study the evolution and taxonomy of poorly known arthropod groups. In 2007, two new Assistant Curators, W. L. Smith (2007-2013) in Fishes and C. S. Moreau in Insects were hired.

Today, Zoology has 8 curatorial positions, with 2 postdoctoral fellows, and some 20 resident graduate students. In addition, over 160 outside researchers hold honorary appointment status with the department.