Notes from William Brewster: The Evolving Field of Zoology

As a part of the Field Notes Project, the Ernst Mayr Library is digitizing the journals, correspondences and photographs of William Brewster (1851-1919), a self-trained ornithologist and specimen curator at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology (MCZ), the first president of the Massachusetts Audubon Society, and a co-founder and president of the American Ornithologists’ Union.

Brewster recorded a lifetime of observations on wildlife and plants, changing landscapes, and daily weather, making his notes a valuable resource for modern scientists studying ecological change. After working as an animal specimen curator for the MCZ for many years, he also bequeathed his personal collection of birds and other animals to the museum.

As I’ve worked to digitize and transcribe the Brewster collection, I’ve been periodically sharing interesting finds in a blog post series on the Mayr Library website. These posts highlight entertaining animal encounters, beautiful descriptions, letters, and more.

I’ve been especially fascinated to track the development of Brewster’s thoughts on scientific collecting. I touched on this subject in a post on the Biodiversity Heritage Library blog, “Digging into the writings of a 19th century ornithologist”. As I’ve continued to scan and transcribe the Brewster collection, an interesting story has emerged. It was a complex job to juggle the hats of museum curator, scientific collector, and bird-lover.

In an 1886 letter, Brewster scoffed at the assertion that “the best was to study bird was with an opera glass!”[1] This was one decade before the Massachusetts Audubon Society for the Protection of Birds was founded, with Brewster as its first president. Despite his earlier reservations, journals from the 1890s show Brewster embracing new methods of data collection using binoculars and cameras, and reflecting critically on the future methods and goals in zoology.

While he continued to advocate for the importance of collecting wildlife specimens, Brewster increasingly felt that humans had an ethical responsibility to carefully mitigate human impact on wildlife – and this responsibility belonged to scientists, too.

In the 1890s Brewster began to consistently document a deep conflict between his desire to study nature and his desire to leave wildlife untouched. Because his field notes are typically more focused on data than on personal details, these comments really do stand out and signal that this became a matter of great concern to him. In 1892, he observes:

As on several former occasions when I have seen a Hawk catch a smaller bird and have listened to its expiring cries I was moved by deep pity and fierce wrath to an extent surprising on the part of one who, like myself, has killed thousands of birds without suffering more than an occasional slight qualm. But there is something peculiarly moving and piteous in the voice of a bird in the clutches of a Hawk – a quality of mingled pain and apprehension which the grasp of the human hand seldom or never elicits. [2]

Over the next few years, we find that he has gone from those aforementioned “occasional slight qualm[s]” to a daily struggle to complete his work. In 1896 he refers to collecting birds as “a most painful task”[3], and writes that he is sometimes “quite unable to bring [himself] to the point of doing it.” [4]

It’s clear that Brewster saw a need for some change in the current scientific practices. Birds were generally being over-harvested, for fashion but also for science. And not only was nature conservation on his mind, but it seems that he felt personally dissatisfied by the limited scope of zoology. Brewster saw the need to legitimize observational studies of animal behavior in a scientific community that was focused primarily on taxonomy and building large collections. While he wrote many letters to colleagues debating the species and subspecies designation of specimens, his journals are brimming with descriptions and speculations about animal behaviors.

From his correspondences, we can see that his thinking was encouraged by Frank Michler Chapman, a younger friend and colleague working at the American Museum of Natural History. In 1890, Chapman had written to Brewster to express his concern that specimen collecting was destructively out of control:

This miserable collecting. It is the cause of all higher failing, it lowers a true love of nature through a desire for gain. I don’t mean a specimen here and there, but this shooting right and left, this boasting of how many skins have been made in a day or season. We are becoming pot-hunters. We proclaim how little we know of the habits of birds and then kill them at sight. Sometimes I am completely disgusted with our ways and myself in particular… I long for an outing where the gun will be secondary, recorded observations primary, where I shall be entirely alone or with a companion whose object is my object. 

We expect too much, that’s the trouble. Collecting, we have at the end of each day some tangible result to show for the day’s work. But it is useless to expect some novel or interesting incident for every day[‘]s observation. But listen to this final result: If I had gone down the Suwanee [River] to record what I saw, I could now have written a more or less interesting paper, as it is I have nothing to say, but I have a hundred or so skins. The question with me is, how am I going to change this? …We have degenerated to ‘gunners’; our success in the field is estimated by the size of our collections. 

… Will you embark with me on a novel ornithological expedition, whose aim shall be to really observe birds to learn something of them. Where the gun shall be a servant, not a master, where days may pass without a skin being made, where there will be time to speculate and discuss the habits of birds observed, where systematic observation of certain phaenomena may be attempted… Returning we could write a paper. How do you suppose this paper would compare with the ones we have to-day, where after a trip[‘]s experience all we can say concerning a given species is: Common, arrived ___.

Such a paper with your name attached to it would start a new epoch in the study of American birds. Imagine any one now-a-days making an extended trip for the sole purpose of observing birds. I know, I have several papers in mind which approach this – yours are nearest. Do you suppose we can reach that condition of mind where one good observation will be considered worth fifty skins, – as it really is. [Line breaks and emphasis added.] [5]

Brewster was too busy with travel and fieldwork to respond directly (in writing, at least) to Chapman’s proposition, but he did reply a few weeks later, “I have been off in my canoe along the ‘South Shore’ of Mass for the past month & have made a good many valuable notes… I left the gun at home for the first time in my life and did not once regret it, either!” [6]

How amazing it was to find, in writing, a proposal to launch “a new epoch in the study of American birds”! While specimen collections are an important part of modern scientific work, it’s true that the study of zoology does look very different today than it did in the 19th century, and here we see the seeds of that change.

It would be easiest to paint Brewster as simply a taxidermist, or as an environmentalist, but as usual we find that the scientist was about as complex as the subjects he studied. Just as Brewster’s careful notes on species abundance and daily temperature are an invaluable resource for researchers, it’s enriching from a humanities perspective to uncover the personal stories that drove a major paradigm shift in the study and stewardship of natural world. While nothing quite compares to studying old documents in a quiet room, it’s exciting to be widening accessibility to these data and historical insights.

The BHL Field Notes Project is funded by the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR).
Images used in this post were previously digitized with funds from IMLS.

[1] Correspondences, Letter to George Sennet, March 7, 1886. Soon to be available in BHL
[2] July 28. Journals of William Brewster, 1871-1919 (inclusive). (1892).
[3] July 3. Journals of William Brewster, 1871-1919 (inclusive). (1896).
[4] July 9. Journals of William Brewster, 1871-1919 (inclusive). (1896).
[5] Correspondences, Frank Michler Chapman to William Brewster, June 15, 1890. Soon to be available in BHL
[6] Correspondences, William Brewster to Frank Michler Chapman, August 8, 1890. Soon to be available in BHL

Additional Resources:
To read more about Brewster’s encounter with the moose, read ‘Notes from William Brewster: Moose!
To learn more about how scientists use specimen collections today read ‘Natural history collections – why are they relevant?’ on The Guardian, or visit the page ‘Why Collections Matter’ on the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections’ website.

To learn more about the origins of the Massachusetts Audubon Society, read ‘Hats off to Audubon’ in Audubon Magazine, and the ‘History of Mass Audubon’ page on the society’s website.

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Elizabeth Meyer joined the Ernst Mayr Library at Harvard University’s Museum of Comparative Zoology as a project assistant in 2015. She digitizes and transcribes library materials for BHL, including the archival collection of American ornithologist William Brewster (1851-1919). With her background in biology, she enjoys promoting access to scientific information and writing blog posts to connect people to BHL.