This finding aid was digitized with funds generously provided by the Smithsonian Institution Women's Committee.
The papers of William Louis Abbott consist of letters to Smithsonian curators and specimen lists, 1892-1917; letters to his mother and sister, 1887-1923; photographs
taken by Abbott in the field, 1890-1923; and some miscellaneous material.
In describing the individual pieces of this collection, particular attention was paid to material relating to the natural and social history of the regions Abbott visited,
the activities and people associated with the Smithsonian Institution and similar bodies, and, to a lesser extent, material that illuminated the character of the man. No attempt
was made to highlight the personal relationships of the Abbott family except where larger issues were involved. Material on these matters may, however, be found in virtually
A native of Philadelphia, William Louis Abbott (1860-1936) was educated at the University of Pennsylvania (A.B., 1881; M.D., 1884). He continued his medical education
in England, attaining Licentiates from the Royal College of Surgeons and the Royal College of Physicians. Upon receiving his inheritance, however, Abbott left the practice
of medicine forever, and from then on indulged his avocation for travel and the study of natural history.
Abbott had already made collections of birds in Iowa and North Dakota in 1880, and in Cuba and Santo Domingo in 1883. His collection of the birds of Philadelphia and southern
New Jersey had been received by the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. His serious field work began in 1887 with a two-year exploration of the Taveita region near
Mount Kilamanjaro in East Africa, the products of which were presented to the United States National Museum in 1890. The same year Abbott returned to Europe by way of Madagascar
and the Seychelles, collecting specimens as he traveled through those regions. Abbott went to Kashmir India in 1891, and traveled and collected throughout Kashmir until 1894,
leaving only for a six-month voyage to the Seychelles in June 1892 and an expedition through Turkestan during the winter of 1893-94. In December 1894 Abbott left Kashmir for
Madagascar in order to enlist with the native "Hova" army during the Malagasy resistence to the second French occupation of the island. The local suspicion of foreigners caused
his resignation, but Abbott continued to travel through the island collecting until his return to Kashmir in September 1895. Abbott sailed to the Far East the next year, where
he explored and collected for the Smithsonian along the Malay Peninsula and lower Thailand until he contracted fever. Returning to Kashmir to recuperate in the highlands,
Abbott continued his collecting there and in Tibet until 1898.
The hostility between the United States and Spain caused Abbott's return home in 1898, and he was wounded slightly while serving as a volunteer in Cuba.
Upon his recovery in the same year, Abbott returned to Southeast Asia, where he was to remain for the next ten years. Initially he continued his work along the Malay Peninsula,
but in 1899 he had his schooner Terrapin constructed. In her, with a few Malay sailors as crew, and the occasional company of Cecil Boden Kloss (whose In the Andamans
and Nicobars constitutes the only published account of the explorations of Abbot during this period), Abbott visited virtually all of the Southeast Asian island groups
within 600 miles of Singapore. Abbott's collecting extended beyond mammal and bird specimens to include ethnological artifacts found among the local inhabitants he encountered.
Abbott's activities in Asia were halted by eye disease of increasing severity, which forced him to sell the Terrapin and return to Europe for treatment in 1909.
Smithsonian acquisitions from the region did not cease, as Abbott funded the Borneo expeditions of Henry C. Raven, who continued what Abbott had been forced to leave. Upon
his recovery in 1910, Abbott returned to Kashmir, where, while unable to shoot, he trapped specimens until 1915.
Abbott left Kashmir for the last time in 1916 to take up exploring and collecting on the island of Hispaniola. In July 1916 he spent five months in the Dominican Republic,
and in 1917-18 fifteen months in Haiti, leaving only after a near fatal attack of dysentery. He returned to Santo Domingo in 1919, and in 1920 returned to Haiti in the company
of Emory Clarence Leonard to collect botanical specimens. In 1921 Abbott returned to the highlands of the Dominican Republic, as he was to do for the next two years until
he retired in 1923.
William Louis Abbott was, in the words of a contemporary, "one of the greatest field naturalists America has produced." Although he did not engage in taxonomic analysis,
his collecting activities were unparalleled in extent and scope, making available for study by Smithsonian naturalists plants, land shells, ethnological material, and vertebrates
of all classes, but particularly birds and small mammals. Abbott donated more than 10,000 of the latter. Species described as new number 462, and more than twenty bear his
name. Perhaps no other single collector provided as much for the Smithsonian Institution.
Photographs relating to South Pacific peoples, possibly collected for an exhibit by Saul Riesenberg at the National Museum of Natural History. A large portion of the collection consists of photographic copies of published woodcuts, etchings, and lithographs. Additional photographs in the collection were made by William Louis Abbott (accession 41342), Merl LaVoy, John F. G. Stokes, and Kenneth Pike Emory. One photograph may have been made on an expedition of the USS Albatross.
Local Call Number(s):
NAA Photo Lot 112
Location of Other Archival Materials:
The National Anthropological Archives holds Saul Herbert Riesenberg's papers.
The National Anthropological Archives holds the William Louis Abbott Collection of papers, as well as additional Abbott photographs (Photo Lot 8 and Photo Lot 97).
Additional Merl LaVoy photographs are held in National Anthropological Archives Photo Lot R92-40, Photo Lot 8, and Photo Lot 97.
The collection is open for research.
Access to the collection requires an appointment.
Photo lot 112, Photographs relating to the South Pacific, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution
The papers in the Abbott collection appear to have been brought together in the Smithsonian's Department of Anthropology in order to process ethnological specimens from Malaya and Indonesia and to prepare an exhibit and publications. Included are some of Abbott's original letters, notes, maps, and a considerable number of photographs. Most of these materials concern the Enggano, Jakun, and Dyak. Many other documents in the collection consist of copies of or extracts from Abbott's letters, the originals of which are now in the Smithsonian Institution Archives. There are also letters and other materials of Otis Tufton Mason and Walter Hough accumulated as they worked on the collection, many simple lists of accessions compiled in the Department of Anthropology, and a few manuscripts. In addition, there are printed materials that were apparently used by the department's staff for reference purposes. Some of the photographs made in Borneo in 1914 are by Henry Cushier Raven, a field assistant of Abbott and, later, a collector financed by Abbott.
Additional materials of Abbott and Raven are in the Smithsonian Institution Archives, and their material (often duplicate photographs) are included in several collections in the National Anthropological Archives.
Scope and Contents:
William Louis Abbott, although formally trained in medicine, chose instead to
devote his time and inherited wealth to worldwide exploration and the collection of
natural history specimens and ethnological artifacts. The Abbott papers in the National
Anthropological Archives reflect his collecting activities in the East Indies, and the work
on his collections from that region by United States National Museum personnel,
especially Otis Tufton Mason, curator of ethnology. The collection includes
correspondence, maps, illustrations of artifacts, manuscripts, lists of objects in the Abbott
collection in the Smithsonian Department of Anthropology, and photographic prints and
negatives. In addition, there is a subject file which contains information on a variety of
topics relating to Indonesia and Malaysia. The materials date from the 1890s to the early
decades of this century.
This archival collection forms a valuable complement to the collection of artifacts
housed in the National Museum of Natural History. (Abbott's collections from Indonesia
are described by Dr. Paul M. Taylor, curator of Asian ethnology, in the Museum
Anthropology Newsletter, April, 1985.) The subject file and lists of objects provide data
on certain specific artifacts and their uses and Abbott's correspondence contains his
observations of the daily life of the various peoples from whom the objects were
collected. These documents are supplemented by a generous photographic record and
sketch maps which outline the routes he followed. The papers focus on the Malay
Peninsula and Archipelago, the region closest to Abbott's heart and to which he dedicated
over a decade before eye disease forced him to leave the tropics.
In addition to Abbott's own materials, there are notes by museum staff, including
descriptions of artifacts, and manuscripts of articles mostly by Mason who was
particularly interested in basketry. The bulk of the correspondence is between Abbott,
Otis Mason, Walter Hough, and Cecil Boden Kloss who accompanied Abbott on several
expeditions. Other correspondents include Cyrus Adler, Jesse Walter Fewkes, William
H. Furness, Alfred Cort Haddon, Ales Hrdlicka, Mary Lois Kissell, Elmer D. Merrill,
William Palmer, Richard Rathbun, and Charles Clark Willoughby. Most of the letters are
brief and discuss proposed work on the Abbott collections, bibliographic sources, and
Additional material in the National Anthropological Archives relating to William
Louis Abbott is contained in the papers of Ales Hrdlička and of Herbert W. Krieger, the
Manuscript and Pamphlet File of the United States National Museum Department of
Anthropology, and the photographic collection of the United States National Museum
Division of Ethnology. Because Abbott donated material to a variety of departments in
the Smithsonian, his original written material is located in several other Smithsonian
departments as well. There are personal letters to his mother and sister as well as
Smithsonian personnel in the Smithsonian Institution Archives. Field notebooks
including detailed sketch maps of collecting stations are in the libraries of the
departments of Mammals and of Birds.
The spelling of place names used here are those of Abbott who frequently wrote
them as they sounded to him.
Collection arranged into 9 series: (1) Correspondence, 1896-1919; (2) Subject file; (3) Register of accessions,1890-1906; (4) Lists of objects by accession number and location;(5) Lists of objects by type or geographic location; (6) Drafts of unpublished articles with working materials; (7) Printed material; (8) Photographic prints; (9) Photographic negatives.
William L. Abbott studied medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and, after receiving an M.D., continued his training in London. Although a highly successful student, he seems never to have been fully committed to medicine. Instead, around 1880, using his own resources, he turned to a life of exploration and the study of natural history.
Abbott's early expeditions were in the United States, but, in time, he went abroad, at ever increasing distances, to the Greater Antilles, East Africa, Kashmir, and Turkestan. In 1896, he began work in Malaya and Indonesia that would largely occupy him until 1915. Using Singapore as a base, he sailed his ship, the Terrapin, to points on both coasts of the Malayan Peninsula, Trang in Thailand, the Anambas Islands, the Mergui Archipelago, the Nicobars and Andamans, both costs of Sumatra and the nearby islands (notably Nias, the Mentawai Islands, and Enggano), the Rhio Archipelago, and Borneo. On many of thes voyages, he collected both biologcial and ethnological specimens and photographs. At times, however, he was accompanied by an Englishman, Cecil Boden Kloss, who handled the ethnological work. Kloss retain his own notes and many of his photographs.
Abbott's later work, between 1916 and 1923, was carried out in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. After this, he retired to a farm on the Elk River in Maryland.
Abbott has been described as one of the great field natturalists of all time simply for the quantity of material he collected. Virtually the only body of work he left, in fact, is his large collection of specimens and notes, letters, and photographs that relate to them. Although he contributed to the collections of several museums, the chief benefactor of his work was the United States National Museum. Its staff and associated produced around forty publications based on his material. Abbott himself published very little.
CHRONOLOGY OF THE LIFE OF WILLIAM LOUIS ABBOTT
1860 February 23 -- Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
1880 -- Collected birds in Iowa and North Dakota
1881 -- Bachelor of Arts, University of Pennsylvania
1883 -- Collected birds in Cuba and Santo Domingo
1884 -- Doctor of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania
1884-1886 -- Postgraduate work in England Licentiate of Royal College of Surgeons and Royal College of Physicians
1886 -- Received inheritance and discontinued formal practice of medicine
1887-1889 -- Exploration of Taveta region near Mt. Kilimanjaro with William Astor Chandler. Collection donated to United States NationalMuseum
1890 -- Exploration and collection in Zanzibar, Seychelles Islands, and Madagascar
1891 -- Ethnological collections in the U.S. National Museum from Kilima-Njaro, East Africa,Annual Report of the U.S. National Museum for 1891, pages 381-398Exploration and collection in India, including Baltistan, Karachi, Kashmir, and Srinagar
1892 -- Exploration and collection in Vale of Kashmir, Baltistan, Aden, Seychelles Islands, and Aldabra Island
1893 -- Exploration and collection in Seychelles Islands; India, including Kashmir and Srinagar; Leh Ladakh; Sinkiang, China; and Eastern Turkistan
1894 -- Continued exploration and collection in region of Eastern Turkistan, Pakistan, India, and Ceylon
1895 -- Exploration and collection in Madagascar and Kashmir
1896 -- Exploration and collection in Malay Peninsula, including:Jan-Feb – PerakFeb-Mar – CantonApr-Nov – Trang Province, Siam, including Pramon, Tyching, and Penang
1897 -- Exploration and collection:Jan -- TrangApr-May -- PenangMay-Dec -- India
1898 -- Volunteered in Spanish-American War with William A. Chambers as Irregular Horse in Florida, and served in CubaTravel in Singapore and China
1899 -- Construction of schooner TerrapinExploration and collection accompanied by Cecil Boden Kloss:Jan-Mar -- TrangMarch -- SingaporeMar-Apr -- JavaJul-Sept -- Lingga and Anamba islandsOct-Nov - Singapore, PenangDec - Junkseylon
1900 -- Exploration and collection accompanied by Kloss:Jan-Mar -- Burma, Mergui ArchipelagoJun-Aug -- Natuna ArchipelagoNov-Dec -- Penang, Burma, Mergui Archipelago
1902 -- Exploration and collection accompanied by Kloss:Jan-Feb -- Banjak Islands, Lasia, BabiFeb-Mar -- Western SumatraMar -- NiasApr-May -- Pahang, Malaya; Singapore and Straits IslandsAug-Sep -- Bintang, Rhio ArchipelagoOct-Nov -- SimalurNov-Jan 03 -- Pagi Islands
1903 -- Exploration and collection:Jan -- Western SumatraFeb -- Pulo TelloApr -- Penang, SingaporeMay-June -- Karimun IslandsJuly-Aug -- Rhio-Lingga ArchipelagoAug-Sep -- Eastern SumatraOct -- PenangNov-Mar 04 -- Burmese coast, including Victoria Point, Mergui Archipelago, and Tenasserim
1904 -- Exploration and collection:Apr -- Penang and Straits of MalaccaMay-Jun -- Banka IslandJul-Aug -- Billiton IslandAug-Sep -- Karimata IslandOct -- Benkulen, SumatraNov-Dec -- Engano
1905 -- Exploration and collection:Dec 04-Feb- Western SumatraFeb-Mar -- NiasJun-Sep -- Western Borneo, including Pontianak and Kapuas riversNov-Jan 06 -- Eastern Sumatra Designated Honorary Associate in Zoology by the U.S. National Museum
1906 -- Visited Hong Kong and Japan (April-May)Exploration and collection accompanied by Kloss:Oct-Feb 07 -- Easter Sumatra, including Bengkalis and Rupat islands and Siak River
1907 -- Exploration and collectionMar -- Rhio ArchipelagoMay -- Islands of South China Sea, including Direction Island, Datu, Temayer, Lamukutan, Panebangan, and PelapisMay-Sep -- Western Borneo, including Kapuas and Simpang riversNov-Dec -- Java Sea, including Bawean Island
1908 -- Exploration and collection:Dec 07-Mar- Southeastern Borneo, including Pulo Laut and Pulo SebukuJun -- Southwestern BorenoNov -- Java Sea
1909 -- Exploration and collection:Dec 08-Apr -- Pulo Laut and eastern Borneo, including Pasir RiverOnset of partial blindness caused by spirochetosis, and treatment in Aachen, Germany. Illness forced Abbott to suspend collecting activities in tropics.
1910-1915 -- Exploration and collection in Kashmir
1912-1915 -- Donated funds to United States National Museum for expedition to Borneo by Henry Cushier Raven
1914 -- Brief visit and collection in Molucca Islands and Celebes, accompanied by his sister
1915-1916 -- Donated funds for expedition by Raven to Dutch East Indies, especially Celebes
1916 -- Exploration and collection in Dominican Republic
1917-1918 -- Exploration and collection in Haiti
1918 -- Interruption of field work by Abbott because of servere illness (dysentary) and by Raven because of the war
1919-1923 -- Exploration and collection in Hispaniola
1920 -- Donated funds to United States National Museum for botanical collection in Haiti by Emery C. Leonard, aid in Division of Plants
1920-1922 -- Donated funds to United States National Museum for expedition to Australia by naturalist Charles M. Hoy
1923-1924 -- Donated funds to United States National Museum for expedition to China by Charles M. Hoy until Hoy's death in the field; workconcluded by Reverend David Crockett Graham
1925-1927 -- Donated funds to United States National Museum for expeditions to Hispaniola
1928 -- Donated funds to United States National Museum for expedition to China
1928 -- Donated funds to United States National Museum for expedition to Hispaniola by Arthur J. Poole, Division of Mammals
1928-1931 -- Donated funds to United States National Museum for archeological expedition to Hispaniola by Herbert William Krieger, curator, Division of Ethnology
1932 -- Donated funds to United States National Museum for archeological expedition to Cuba
1934 -- Purchase and donation of birds of the Himalayas for the United States National Museum
April 2, 1936 -- Death of William Louis Abbott at his farm near North East, Maryland of heart disease after a long illnessBequest to Smithsonian Institution any of books and papers desired (278 volumes accepted) and approximately $100,000 (1/5 of estate) to promote zoological researchers
William Louis Abbott was a self-trained and self-sustaining collector who
donated large numbers of ethnological artifacts, zoological specimens, and funds to the
United States National Museum of the Smithsonian Institution around the turn of the
twentieth century. The Abbott Papers in the National Anthropological Archives were
apparently compiled by the staff of the Department of Anthropology, especially Otis
Tufton Mason, curator of ethnology, in order to process incoming collections. The
correspondence and printed materials relate primarily to Abbott's collecting activities and
to Mason's research on Abbott's collections.
The William Louis Abbott collection is open for research. Access to the William Louis Abbott collection requires an appointment.
William Louis Abbott Collection, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution
These are photographs taken by William L. Abbott during the period 1891-1923; the bulk being from the later date. Virtually all were identified by Abbott with captions
on the border or reverse of the photo.
Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 7117, William Louis Abbott Papers
This series is composed of the letters from William Louis Abbott to members of his family, predominantly his mother, Susan F. Abbott, and his sister, Gertrude Abbott.
A few pieces addressed to his sister and brother-in-law, "Dollie" and "Val" de Calry, will also be found.
Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 7117, William Louis Abbott Papers
This series is composed primarily of letters written by William Louis Abbott to Smithsonian naturalists. The letters are identified by the name of the recipient,
the place from which they were written, and the date on which they were written. A manuscript copy of an article written by Abbott and specimen lists, identified by locality
and the dates of the expedition, may also be found.
Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 7117, William Louis Abbott Papers