Happy Birthday Waldo Schmitt!

Do you know what carcinology is?

It is the study of crustaceans, a group of arthropods that includes lobsters, crayfish, shrimp, krill, barnacles and crabs. One of the pre-eminent carcinologists (a scientist who studies crustaceans) of the first half of the twentieth century was Waldo LaSalle Schmitt. Born on this day (June 25) in 1887 in Washington, D.C., Schmitt held various positions within the United States Department of Agriculture, the Smithsonian, and the United States Bureau of Fisheries throughout his career. He authored more than 70 titles over his lifetime and was a member of numerous professional organizations, including president of the Society of Systematic Zoology and the Washington Academy of Sciences and a trustee of the Bear’s Bluff Laboratories, the International Oceanographic Foundation, and the Serological Museum of Rutgers University.

While his primary field of investigation was carcinology, Schmitt actually began his career in 1907 as an Aid in Economic Botany for the United States Department of Agriculture, and his early work with natural history involved the study of both the flora and fauna of D.C. and Maryland. It was in 1910 that his true love affair with marine invertebrates began when he was appointed Aid in the Division of Marine Invertebrates at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History (NMNH). During the appointment, he met Mary Jane Rathbun, a fellow Smithsonian zoologist who specialized in crustaceans and described more than a thousand new species and subspecies and many higher taxa over her career. Her influence helped set Schmitt on his carcinology track, and an opportunity with the United States Bureau of Fisheries from 1911-14 helped solidify that decision.

From 1911-14, the USS Albatross, an iron-hulled, twin-screw steamer in the United States Navy that was reputedly the first research vessel ever built especially for marine research, conducted a scientific investigation of the west coast of America and Alaska. The expedition examined existing and searched for new fishing grounds around Alaska, surveyed existing fishing grounds off Washington and Oregon, and performed a biological survey of the San Francisco Bay. Schmitt served as Scientific Assistant and Naturalist aboard the Albatross during this expedition, and used the crustaceans gathered during the survey as the material for his M.A. thesis for the University of California, entitled The Marine Decapod Crustacea of California.

Following the survey, Schmitt returned to NMNH, where he held various positions in the Division of Marine Invertebrates (serving as Assistant Curator from 1915-20 and Curator from 1920-43), the Department of Biology (serving as Head Curator from 1943-47), and the Department of Zoology (Head Curator from 1947-57). After his retirement in 1957, Schmitt continued to serve as an Honorary Research Associate with the Smithsonian until his death in 1977.

Over his career, Schmitt took part in many more biological expeditions and field trips, studying crustaceans and other biodiversity in California, Florida, South America, the Galapagos Islands, and the West Indies. His last expedition took him to Antarctica.

The Palmer Peninsula Survey of the United States Antarctic Research Program studied marine invertebrates and vertebrates, geography, botany, and entomology in and around multiple Antarctic sites from 1962-63. Schmitt collected over 29,000 specimens for the NMNH during the survey, and in recognition of his work, a thirty-mile ice-covered series of outcrops at the base of the Antarctic Peninsula was named after him – Schmitt Mesa.

Schmitt kept a series of field books detailing his work on the Palmer Peninsula Survey, and two of them, covering the period from November 24, 1962-March 10, 1963, have been digitized by The Field Book Project and made available within the Biodiversity Heritage Library. They have also both been fully transcribed within the Smithsonian Transcription Center, making it even easier for you to browse Schmitt’s incredible notes (Diary 1 and Diary 2).

An interesting excerpt from one of Schmitt’s digitized field books reveals his frustrations with the “college textbook oceanographers” serving on the Palmer Peninsula Survey. As Schmitt writes,

“College ‘students’ Ph.D.’s afloat. Two men are supposed to be on duty each operation or separate phase of work. Often (or at least at times) only one is around; and that one goes down to wake his relief; then without waiting to see that the awakened man gets up and onto the job goes off to bed. [It’s inconceivable].

Expensive gear is being towed behind, needs competent watch and attention, yet when ship stops or changes course, gear (or magnetometer) is endangered & then lost, and guy in charge of it blames the bridge for not notifying him of change – “they did not tell me.” Seems as though an alert man would realize change of course, absence of engine vibrations would sense at least some change requiring instrument care or retrieval. Much the same happens when wind direction dial in lab fails to register; student is aghast, I don’t know what’s wrong, I can’t get wind direction or force – a practical or experienced man could look outside or even through port & form an estimate as any old sea dog knows. Now I know why Coast guards & others are trained in sailing ships – to get practical experience – and to be able to form personal creditable and accurate determinations of wind, weather & sea conditions.

It would seem that any college textbook-oceanographer should serve an internship at Coast guard Acad (however limited) before being entrusted with valuable expensive and hard to replace gear & instruments. Nobody would let doctors fresh out of college operate on you, unless had interns experience, yet these Ph.D’s are turned loose without any first hand real practical [knowledge] of sea, & when balled out by one who knows the sea they resent it because man has had no college training… [they think] they know better because of textbook knowledge & the degree they have, a Ph.D. never made a man out of what wasn’t.”

Be sure to check out Schmitt’s field books to get more fascinating insight into the day-to-day life of a scientist at work in Antarctica.

Schmitt’s career was truly a remarkable one, contributing extensively to our knowledge of biodiversity and particularly crustaceans. In addition to the Schmitt Mesa named in his honor, the clam genus Waldo also bears his namesake. Check out other works by Waldo Schmitt in BHL and browse photos taken by him during his many expeditions, including the Palmer Peninsula Survey, from The Field Book Project in Flickr.

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Grace Costantino served as the Outreach and Communication Manager for the Biodiversity Heritage Library from 2014 to 2021. In this capacity, she developed and managed BHL's communication strategy, oversaw social media initiatives, and engaged with the public to excite audiences about the wealth of biodiversity heritage available in BHL. Prior to her role as Outreach and Communication Manager, Grace served as the Digital Collections Librarian for Smithsonian Libraries and as the Program Manager for BHL.