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Alexander Wetmore Papers

Birds of the Republic of Panama (Monograph : 1965)
Wetmore, Alexander, 1886-1978  Search this
116.34 cu. ft. (206 document boxes) (10 half document boxes) (1 12x17 box) (2 16x20 boxes) (29 3x5 boxes) (13 5x8 boxes) (oversize materials)
Collection descriptions
Archival materials
Motion pictures (visual works)
Black-and-white photographs
Lantern slides
Color transparencies
circa 1848-1983 and undated
The papers of Alexander Wetmore were received in the Smithsonian Archives in several different accessions between 1978 and 1987.

The Archives would like to thank Mrs. Beatrice T. Wetmore for her help in transferring her husband's papers to the Archives. We also appreciate the assistance of the staff of the Division of Birds, National Museum of Natural History. The authors thank Susan Glenn and Pamela Henson for their thorough review of the manuscript.
Descriptive Entry:
The papers of Alexander Wetmore provide comprehensive documentation of his professional career and personal life. The collection is especially valuable in illustrating his research career in systematic ornithology and avian paleontology; his many collecting trips and field expeditions; his involvement in professional organizations, scientific societies, and social groups; his education and the development of his interest in ornithology; his administrative career at the United States National Museum (USNM) and the Smithsonian Institution; his family history; and personal matters. Less well represented in the collection is material concerning his brief tenure as Superintendent of the National Zoological Park, 1924-1925. Interested researchers should consult Smithsonian Archives Record Unit 74, National Zoological Park, Records, 1887-1965, and undated.

Wetmore was a prolific correspondent and nearly a third of this collection is made up of letters written and received between 1901 and 1977. The correspondence documents most aspects of his career and is particularly valuable in illustrating his research on recent and fossil birds. Wetmore exchanged letters with many of the prominent ornithologists and avian paleontologists of his day, and the correspondence is an important source of information on the history of both disciplines during the twentieth century. It is also helpful in documenting USNM and Smithsonian history from the mid-1920s to the early 1950s. Especially valuable are letters exchanged with USNM curators which concern field work, research programs, and exhibits. Wetmore corresponded with many foreign specialists, and several letters from British and European ornithologists contain descriptions of World War II and its effects on society and science. Also included are countless letters written by Wetmore giving information and advice to amateur ornithologists, bird watchers, and youngsters interested in birds.

A large file of correspondence, reports, fiscal records, publications, and related materials documents Wetmore's constant involvement in professional activities and national and international scientific affairs. His seventy-year membership in the American Ornithologists' Union is thoroughly illustrated. Included are files concerning Wetmore's work with the AOU Committee on Classification and Nomenclature, and his role in the preparation of the fifth edition of the Check-list of North American Birds. Also included are files concerning Wetmore's work as a delegate and President of meetings of the International Ornithological Congress. Records concerning his work as Secretary-General of the Eighth American Scientific Congress, and as United States Representative to the Inter-American Committee of Experts on Nature Protection and Wildlife Preservation provide documentation of initial inter-American cooperation on conservation issues. Also found are substantial records documenting his associations with the National Geographic Society; the Gorgas Memorial Institute for Tropical and Preventive Medicine; the Washington Biologists' Field Club; the Cosmos Club; and the Explorers Club. Contained in a separate series are records dealing with his work as Chairman of the National Academy of Sciences Daniel Giraud Elliot Award Committee.

Wetmore's work as a field ornithologist and scientific expedition member is documented from his first recorded observation of a Florida pelican in 1894 through his last collecting trip to Panama in 1966. The majority of records concerning his field work are found in three series. The first documents Wetmore's work prior to his appointment to the U.S. Biological Survey in 1910 and includes field notes, migration records, and lists made during his boyhood in Wisconsin; similar materials compiled during his college days in Lawrence, Kansas, and on trips to the western United States; and catalogues of his ornithological and natural history collections. The second series consists of correspondence, field notes, diaries, reports, expense records, and related materials documenting field work carried out for the U.S. Biological Survey and the Smithsonian Institution (with the exception of trips to Panama). Also included are records created during trips to professional meetings, trips to study museum specimens, and other official travel. The third series contains records concerning his field trips to Panama, 1944, 1946-1966. Also included is a file of permits used during his field investigations, as well as expense accounts from his official travel.

Photographic documentation of Wetmore's life and career is a major strength of the collection. Included are voluminous photographs, albums, lantern slides, 35mm color slides, motion pictures, and negatives documenting his field work and other official travel. Also included are portraits of Wetmore; photographs of Wetmore with family, friends, and colleagues; photographs from his boyhood; photographs of Smithsonian events, scientific meetings, and social gatherings; and photographs of professional colleagues.

The papers contain a file of collected materials documenting Wetmore's personal life and family history. The file includes correspondence with his immediate family and other relatives; various biographical information; genealogical data on his family; school and college records; papers and drawings from his early work on birds; congratulatory correspondence and letters of introduction and recommendation; transcripts of an oral history interview; and personnel records from his service in the federal government. Of special interest is Wetmore's "private zoo" - a card catalogue of species and subspecies named in his honor. A series of daily diaries and appointment books helps to illustrate his day-to-day activities.

Wetmore's twenty-eight-year administrative career at the USNM and Smithsonian is partially documented in the collection. Most of the records consist of routine correspondence inquiring about employment at the USNM. Also included are various files concerning Smithsonian activities, offices, and administrative matters.

The remainder of the collection primarily consists of materials relating to his research in ornithology and avian paleontology. Included is a large group of unpublished manuscripts, speeches, and radio talks prepared by Wetmore. Also included are numerous letters; specimen lists; notes; published manuscripts; field records; and publications relating to his research. Of special interest are original journals, lists, and correspondence from field work in Haiti by William Louis Abbott, 1916-1928, and Watson M. Perrygo, 1928-1929. The collection also contains a sample of original illustrations used in his publications on fossil birds; and manuscripts, proofs, drawings, and other materials from his magnum opus, The Birds of the Republic of Panama.

Also included in the collection are diplomas, certificates, and awards received by Wetmore, and typescript copies of correspondence between John Xantus and Spencer F. Baird.

Additional records documenting Wetmore's professional career can be found in the Smithsonian Archives. Researchers interested in Wetmore's career as Assistant Secretary in charge of the USNM and Secretary of the Smithsonian should consult Smithsonian Archives Record Units 192 and 46. Field reports written during several investigations he conducted for the U.S. Biological Survey can be found in Record Unit 7176, United States Fish and Wildlife Service, Field Reports, 1860-1961. Records dealing with Wetmore's work on the fifth edition of the AOU Check-list of North American Birds are a part of record unit 7050, American Ornithologists' Union Collection, 1883-1977. An oral history interview (record unit 9504) conducted by the Archives in 1974 provides insight to all aspects of Wetmore's career. Record unit 9516, the Watson M. Perrygo oral history interviews, include many reflections on Wetmore by his long-time field companion.

A voluminous collection of Wetmore's field catalogues, field notes, lists, and other specimen-related records are housed in the Division of Birds, National Museum of Natural History.
Historical Note:
(Frank) Alexander Wetmore (1886-1978), ornithologist, avian paleontologist, and science administrator, was the sixth Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, serving from 1945 to 1952. He was born in North Freedom, Wisconsin, the son of Nelson Franklin and Emma Amelia (Woodworth) Wetmore. He developed an early interest in birds and at the age of eight made his first field journal entry - an observation on the pelican recorded on a family vacation to Florida in 1894. His first published paper, "My Experience with a Red-headed Woodpecker," appeared in Bird-Lore in 1900. By the time he entered the University of Kansas in 1905, Wetmore had made extensive natural history collections around his Wisconsin home and in Independence, Kansas.

Shortly after his arrival in Lawrence, Kansas, Wetmore received his first museum job as Assistant at the University Museum under Charles D. Bunker. His undergraduate career was interrupted on several occasions as he took jobs in Arizona, California, and Colorado to finance his education. He also used these opportunities to study and collect the native avifauna. Wetmore received the Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Kansas in 1912. Wetmore continued his education in Washington, D.C., receiving the Master of Science degree in 1916 and the Doctor of Philosophy degree in 1920 - both from George Washington University. He would later receive honorary doctorates from the University of Wisconsin, George Washington University, Centre College, and Ripon College.

Wetmore's career in the federal government began in 1910 when he was appointed an Agent for the Biological Survey, a bureau of the United States Department of Agriculture. During the summers of 1910-1911 he assisted on field investigations in Wyoming and Alaska. He traveled to Puerto Rico in late 1911 and spent nearly a year surveying the bird life of that and adjacent islands. In 1913, Wetmore was promoted to Assistant Biologist with the Biological Survey, and he moved to Washington to begin work in the program on the food habits of North American birds. His career with the Biological Survey was highlighted by constant field investigations which took him to most of the United States, as well as Canada, Mexico, and South America. Among his more important investigations were a study of the causes of waterfowl mortality around the Great Salt Lake, Utah, 1914-1916; a survey of North American birds that migrated to the southern part of South America, 1920-1921; and the leadership of the Tanager Exploring Expedition to the islands of the mid-Pacific, 1923. Wetmore was promoted to the rank of Biologist with the Survey in 1924.

As his professional status grew, Wetmore received offers of curatorial and research positions from several of the leading museums in America. Perhaps the most interesting came in 1920 when the American Museum of Natural History asked him to join the Roy Chapman Andrews Asiatic Expedition and take charge of the zoological collections. Wetmore declined this and several other offers. Finally, in November 1924, he accepted appointment as Superintendent of the National Zoological Park (NZP). He remained at the NZP until March 1925 when he was appointed Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian in charge of the United States National Museum (USNM). Wetmore held this position for nearly twenty years, when, in 1945, he was elected the sixth Secretary of the Smithsonian. He retired in 1952 and became a Research Associate of the Institution where he continued his research on recent and fossil birds.

Wetmore's administration of the USNM and Smithsonian during the era of the Great Depression and World War II faced many constraints. However, he managed to continue the Institution's basic research aims, while instituting improvements in its administrative operations and exhibits program. Among his most important accomplishments was a move toward professional management of the Institution by hiring specialists such as John E. Graf and John L. Keddy to assist with federal budgetary procedures and other administrative matters. He also steered the Smithsonian toward a period of exhibit modernization which was realized after his retirement. Two new bureaus were added to the Smithsonian during Wetmore's tenure as Secretary - the National Air Museum (now the National Air and Space Museum) and the Canal Zone Biological Area (now the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute).

Despite his administrative responsibilities at the Smithsonian, Wetmore continued an active research program in the field and the laboratory. He conducted several collecting expeditions to the American tropics between 1927 and 1940. When the outbreak of World War II restricted travel outside the country, he undertook a study of the birds of Shenandoah National Park in nearby Virginia. In the mid-1940s, Wetmore began a research program that would occupy his energies for the remainder of his life. Between 1946 and 1966 he took annual trips to Panama - making an exhaustive survey of the birds of the isthmus. This work culminated in the publication of his magnum opus, The Birds of the Republic of Panama. Three volumes of the work appeared during his life. The final volume was completed by his Smithsonian colleagues and published posthumously.

Wetmore was widely recognized as the dean of American ornithologists, and he worked extensively in the field of avian paleontology and as a systematic specialist. His bibliography contained over seven hundred entries; including 150 papers and monographs on fossil birds. He described 189 species and subspecies of birds new to science. Wetmore made enormous natural history collections, which were eventually donated to the Smithsonian. Included were 26,058 bird and mammal skins from North America, South America, Central America, and the Caribbean area; 4,363 skeletal and anatomical specimens; and 201 clutches of birds eggs. Fifty-six new genera, species, and subspecies of birds (both recent and fossil), mammals, amphibians, insects, mollusks, and plants were named in his honor - an assemblage which Wetmore called his "private zoo." Also named in his honor was the "Wetmore Glacier" in the Antarctic and the "Alexander Wetmore Bridge," a canopy bridge in the Bayano River Basin in Panama.

Wetmore was a member of countless professional organizations, scientific committees, conservation groups, and social clubs. He served many of the groups in elected or appointed capacities. He was a member of the American Ornithologists' Union (AOU) for seventy years and served as President from 1926 to 1929. For many years he was Chairman of the AOU Committee on Classification and Nomenclature and was instrumental in the publication of the fifth edition of the Check-list of North American Birds. Wetmore also had a long-term association with the National Geographic Society, serving as a Trustee, 1933-1976, and as Vice-Chairman of the Committee on Research and Exploration. He also authored several popular publications on birds for the Society.

Wetmore served as President of the Washington Academy of Sciences, 1927; the Washington Biologists' Field Club, 1928-1931; the Biological Society of Washington, 1929-1931; the Cosmos Club, 1938; the Explorers Club, 1944-1946; and the X International Ornithological Congress held at Uppsala, Sweden, 1950. He was Home Secretary of the National Academy of Sciences, 1951-1955, and a Trustee (or Director) of the Textile Museum of Washington, 1928-1952; the George Washington University, 1945-1962; and the Gorgas Memorial Institute for Tropical and Preventive Medicine, 1949-1976.

During his career at the Smithsonian, Wetmore was named to several national and international scientific committees. He was Secretary-General of the Eighth American Scientific Congress, 1940; United States Representative to the Inter-American Commission of Experts on Nature Protection and Wildlife Preservation, 1940; Vice-Chairman of the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, 1945-1952; and Chairman of the Interdepartmental Committee on Research and Development, 1946.

His contributions to science resulted in many honors and awards. He was the recipient of the Otto Herman Medal of the Hungarian Ornithological Society, 1931; the Hubbard Medal of the National Geographic Society, 1957; the Brewster Medal, 1959, and the Elliott Coues Award, 1972, of the American Ornithologists' Union; the Explorers Club Medal, 1962; the Bartsch Award of the Audubon Naturalist Society, 1964; and the Arthur Allen Award of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, 1970. Wetmore married Fay Holloway in 1912, and a daughter, Margaret Fenwick, was born in 1916. After a long illness, his wife died in 1953. That same year he married Annie Beatrice Thielen. Wetmore died at his home in Glen Echo, Maryland, on December 7, 1978.

For more detailed biographical information on Wetmore, see Paul H. Oehser, "In Memoriam: Alexander Wetmore," The Auk, July 1980, vol. 97, no. 3, pp. 608-615; S. Dillon Ripley and James A. Steed, "Alexander Wetmore, June 18, 1886-December 7, 1978," Biographical Memoirs of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 56, pp. 597-626, 1987; and John Sherwood, "His Field Notebook Was Started in 1894; It Is Not Yet Complete," The Washington Star, Thursday, 13 January 1977. A discussion of his contributions to paleornithology is found in Storrs L. Olson's "Alexander Wetmore and the Study of Fossil Birds" in "Collected Papers in Avian Paleontology Honoring the 90th Birthday of Alexander Wetmore," Storrs L. Olson, editor, Smithsonian Contributions to Paleobiology, 1976, no. 27, pp. xi-xvi.
June 18, 1886 -- Born in North Freedom, Wisconsin

1900 -- Wrote first published paper, "My experience with a Red-headed Woodpecker" (Bird-Lore, vol. II, pp. 155-156)

1905-1908, 1910 -- Assistant, University of Kansas Museum

1909 -- Assistant, Colorado Museum of Natural History

1910-1912 -- Agent, United States Bureau of Biological Survey

1910 -- Field work, Wyoming

1911 -- Field work, Alaska

1911-1912 -- Field work, Porto Rico

1912 -- Bachelor of Science, University of Kansas

October 13, 1912 -- Married Fay Holloway

1913-1923 -- Assistant Biologist, United States Bureau of Biological Survey

1914 -- Field work, Utah and California

1914-1915 -- Field work, Utah and Montana

1916 -- Master of Science, George Washington University

1916 -- Birth of daughter, Margaret Fenwick

1916 -- Field work, Utah

1916 -- Birds of Porto Rico (U.S. Dept. Agric. Bull. 326, pp. 1-140)

1917 -- Field work, North Carolina

1917-1918 -- Field work, Arkansas and Texas

1918 -- Field work, Western United States

1919 -- Field work, Florida; Arizona

1920 -- Doctor of Philosophy, George Washington University

1920-1921 -- Field work, South America

1921 -- Field work, Georgia

1922 -- Field work, South Carolina; Minnesota; North Dakota; Pennsylvania; Maryland

1923 -- In charge of the Tanager Exploring Expedition to the mid-Pacific islands

1924 -- Biologist, U.S. Bureau of Biological Survey

1924-1925 -- Superintendent, National Zoological Park

1925-1944 -- Assistant Secretary, Smithsonian Institution (in charge of the U.S. National Museum)

1926 -- Observations on the Birds of Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay and Chile (U.S. National Museum, Bull. 133, pp.1-448)

1926 -- The Migration of Birds (Harvard University Press)

1926-1929 -- President, American Ornithologists' Union

1927 -- Field work, Haiti and Dominican Republic

1927 -- President, Washington Academy of Sciences

1927 -- Isidore Geoffroy St. Hilaire Medal, Societe Nationale d'Acclimitation de France

1928 -- Trip to study bird collections of museums in the western United States

1928-1931 -- President, Washington Biologists' Field Club

1928-1952 -- Trustee, Textile Museum of Washington

1929-1931 -- President, Biological Society of Washington

1930 -- A Systematic Classification for the Birds of the World (Proc. U.S. Nat. Mus., vol. 76, art. 24, pp. 1-8). Revised and reprinted in 1934, 1940, 1948, 1951, and 1960.

1930 -- U.S. Delegate, VII International Ornithological Congress, Amsterdam; field work, Spain

1931 -- The Birds of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, by Wetmore and B. H. Swales (U.S. National Museum Bull. 155, pp. 1-483)

1931 -- Field work, Haiti

1931 -- Otto Herman Medal, Hungarian Ornithological Society

1931-1957 -- Chairman, American Ornithologists' Union Committee on Classification and Nomenclature of North American Birds

1932 -- Honorary D.Sc., George Washington University

1932 -- Field work, western United States

1933-1976 -- Trustee, National Geographic Society

1934 -- U.S. Delegate, VIII International Ornithological Congress, Oxford

1936 -- Field work, Guatemala

1937 -- Field work, Venezuela

1937-1978 -- Vice Chairman, Acting Chairman, and Chairman Emeritus, Committee on Research and Exploration, National Geographic Society

1938 -- President, Cosmos Club

1938 -- Chairman of U.S. delegation, IX International Ornithological Congress, Rouen, France

1939 -- Field work, Mexico

1940 -- A Check-list of the fossil birds of North America (Smiths. Misc. Coll., vol. 99, no. 4, pp. 1-81)

1940 -- Secretary-General, Eighth American Scientific Congress

1940 -- U.S. Representative, Inter-American Commission of Experts on Nature Protection and Wildlife Preservation

1940 -- Field work, Costa Rica

1941 -- Field work, Colombia

1941 -- Distinguished Service Award, University of Kansas

1944-1946 -- President, Explorers Club

1944, 1946-1966 -- Field work, Panama

1945 -- Alumni Award for Achievement in Science, George Washington University

1945-1952 -- Secretary, Smithsonian Institution

1945-1952 -- Vice-Chairman, National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics

1945-1962 -- Trustee, George Washington University

1946 -- Honorary D.Sc., University of Wisconsin

1947 -- Honorary D.Sc., Centre College of Kentucky

1947-1963 -- Chairman, Daniel Giraud Elliot Fund Award Committee, National Academy of Sciences

1948 -- Chairman, Interdepartmental Committee on Scientific Research and Development

1948 -- Orden de Merito, Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, Cuba

1949-1976 -- Member, Board of Directors, Gorgas Memorial Institute for Tropical and Preventive Medicine

1950 -- President, Academy of Medicine of Washington, D.C.

1950 -- President, X International Ornithological Congress, Uppsala, Sweden

1951-1955 -- Home Secretary, National Academy of Sciences

February 14, 1953 -- Death of Fay Holloway Wetmore

December 16, 1953 -- Married Annie Beatrice Thielen

1953-1978 -- Research Associate, Smithsonian Institution

1954 -- Field work, Venezuela

1957 -- Hubbard Medal, National Geographic Society

1959 -- Honorary D.Sc., Ripon College

1959 -- Brewster Medal, American Ornithologists' Union

1962 -- Explorers Club Medal

1963 -- Treasurer, XVI International Congress of Zoology

1964 -- Bartsch Award, Audubon Naturalist Society

1965 -- The Birds of the Republic of Panama, vol. 1 (Smiths. Misc. Coll., vol. 150, pp. 1-483)

1968 -- The Birds of the Republic of Panama, vol. 2 (Smiths. Misc. Coll., vol. 150, pt. 2, pp. 1-605)

1969 -- Field work, Netherlands Antilles

1970 -- Arthur Allen Medal, Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology

1972 -- The Birds of the Republic of Panama, vol. 3 (Smiths. Misc. Coll., vol. 150, pt. 3, pp. 1-631)

1972 -- Elliott Coues Award, American Ornithologists' Union

1973 -- "Alexander Wetmore Bridge" dedicated in Panama

1975-1978 -- Honorary President, American Ornithologists' Union

1976 -- Collected Papers in Avian Paleontology Honoring the 90th Birthday of Alexander Wetmore, Storrs L. Olson, editor (Smiths. Contrib. to Paleobio., no. 27)

December 7, 1978 -- Death, Glen Echo, Maryland

1984 -- The Birds of the Republic of Panama, vol. 4 (Smiths. Misc. Coll., vol. 150, pt. 4, pp. 1-670)
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Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 7006, Alexander Wetmore Papers
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