The Life and Work of Robert Alexander Gilbert: Empowering New Insights through Digitization and Transcription of Archival Materials
This post is part of a series from the Ernst Mayr Library exploring the digitization and transcription of ornithologist William Brewster’s archival materials and the insights and scholarship made possible thanks to this work.
Robert Alexander Gilbert (1870-1942) was a Black photographer interested in ornithology and chemistry who worked for ornithologist William Brewster from the mid 1890s until Brewster’s death in 1919 and at various tasks around the Museum of Comparative Zoology (MCZ) at Harvard University beyond 1919. He was an Associate of the American Ornithologists’ Union.
Gilbert was not officially recognized for his photographic work with William Brewster, although Brewster did not claim credit for all the images in his collection. It was assumed that Brewster took all the photographic prints bequeathed to the Ernst Mayr Library and Archives of the MCZ (EMLA) upon his death. However, while conducting research for a book, author John Hanson Mitchell, former editor of the Massachusetts Audubon Society’s (MAS) Sanctuary magazine, discovered over 2000 of Brewster’s glass plate negatives in the attic of a building owned by the MAS. One of the images in particular, a photograph of a young, well-attired Black man standing in front of a rustic cabin in the wilderness, captured his interest. Mitchell was curious as to the identity of this young man. Later, in the mid-1970s, Mitchell had a chance encounter with an Archives Assistant at the MCZ who suggested to him that all of Brewster’s photographs were, in fact, taken by Brewster’s assistant, a young Black man named Robert Gilbert. This piqued Mitchell’s interest and launched his journey to discover more about Gilbert. The quest culminated with the publication in 2005 of Mitchell’s Looking for Mr. Gilbert: the Reimagined Life of an African American. In 2014 an e-book edition was published as well.
Mitchell’s publication helps provide new insight into Robert Gilbert’s life and work. Brewster’s journals and diaries, now digitally available on the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL), are also valuable records attesting to Gilbert’s contributions in a variety of areas. While only a handful of Brewster’s photographs in the MCZ collection can be positively attributed to Gilbert, it is clear that Gilbert was with Brewster for photo sessions during the years they worked together. The photographic relationship between Brewster and Gilbert is intriguing. There is new enthusiasm to examine Brewster’s journals and diaries more closely now that they are digitized and being transcribed, to clarify Gilbert’s role in photographic collaboration with Brewster. As a result of identifying connections between the collections in the Museum of American Bird Art at the Massachusetts Audubon Society and the EMLA, a cooperative research project is underway.
Robert Gilbert was born and raised in the rural town of Natural Bridge, Virginia, in the valley of Broad Creek. In 1886, at the age of 16, he moved to Boston, Massachusetts where he would reside for the remainder of his life. Gilbert had an assortment of odd jobs during his first ten years in Boston, including working as a laboratory assistant for Dr. Arthur P. Chadbourne of Harvard Medical School, an amateur ornithologist and acquaintance of William Brewster. The records are unclear as to the actual year, but sometime between 1895 and 1897, work in Chadbourne’s lab slowed down and he recommended Gilbert to Brewster, who was in need of a temporary assistant to help him set up his personal bird museum. Gilbert met with Brewster, who showed him his extensive specimen collection and the tasks at hand, and for the next ten weeks Gilbert helped Brewster establish his new museum on the grounds of his home in Cambridge, MA. Afterward, Gilbert returned to working for Dr. Chadbourne, but shortly thereafter the laboratory experiments were completed whereupon Brewster hired Gilbert as his full-time assistant. Brewster’s first mention of Gilbert in his journals is in his entry for March 31, 1897.
It is clear from Brewster’s diaries and journals that the tasks performed by Gilbert in Brewster’s employ were many and varied. Glover M. Allen, Curator of Mammals at the MCZ, described Gilbert as “Mr. Brewster’s trusted assistant, looking after innumerable details at his museum or his camp, doing everything from photographic work to preparing and serving meals, and always with a quiet dignity and devotion that never for a moment failed.” Gilbert quickly became Brewster’s right-hand man as evidenced by the innumerable references to him from 1897 to 1919 in his diaries and journals. Here are a few examples:
Journal, June 8, 1897. As a field assistant, note Gilbert’s observational skills and attention to detail as he documents the behavior of a Whistler Duck for Brewster:
“Gilbert who had been to the boat for his breakfast came to relieve me and to keep guard while I had mine. It was arranged between us that if the Whistler began taking out her young while I was absent he would shout a few times to let me know of the fact. I had just finished breakfast when I heard this signal and jumping into the St. Lawrence skiff rowed as hard as I could pull for the nest but as soon as I came in sight of it I knew I was too late for Gilbert was standing up in his boat and paddling slowly towards the tree. Here is his account of what happened during my absence: At 6.45 the old Duck appeared at the entrance (the lower hole) to the nest where she sat for five minutes moving her head continually and looking about in every direction included within her field of vision; then she sank back out of sight reappearing at the end of a minute and looking about as before for another five minutes. At the end of this second period of observation she flew down to the water and swam around the stub three times clucking and calling. On completing the third round she stopped directly under the hole and gave a single loud call or cluck when the ducklings at once began scrambling up to the entrance from the nest and dropping down to the water falling on top of one another. In other words the brood literally poured out of the nest much as shot would fall from one’s hand. One or two hesitated or paused for an instant reaching the mouth of the hole but the greater number toppled out over the edge as soon as they appeared. All used their tiny wings freely beating them continuously as they descended. They did not seem to strike the water with much fear.”
Journal, November 5, 1897. Bird observations reported to Brewster: “Gilbert counted fourteen Chickadees in one flock on Ball’s Hill this morning. With them was a Downy, two Tree Sparrows & two Juncos. He also saw five Black Ducks passing over the meadows at evening.”
Journal, March 24, 1898. Work at Brewster’s cabin in Concord, MA: “Spent the forenoon clearing out the path behind the hill, Gilbert helping me.”
Diary, March 6, 1909. Photographic work: “Lizzy Fuller came over at 8 P.M. She with C. & E.R.S. [Caroline and Elizabeth R. Simmons] spent evening in Museum where I showed them about 100 lantern slides that Gilbert has just made.”
Diary, January 9, 1918. Work in Brewster’s museum: “Gilbert is now going through the collections in search of Anthrinae [Anthrenus] & other insect pests. Thus far he has found traces of them in the cans only.”
In the 1890s Brewster was earnestly transitioning from collecting bird specimens with his shotgun to field observation and photography. He had, in Robert Gilbert, an assistant knowledgeable in ornithology and capable with photography and photographic processing. It is unfortunate that in the Ernst Mayr Library collection of over 1,700 of Brewster’s photographic prints, only six have an inscription on the verso stating that the photograph was taken by Robert Gilbert. Below are two such photographs:
It is possible that many other photographs were taken by Gilbert, but we don’t know for sure. There are a number of occasions recorded in Brewster’s writings where it is clear that Brewster himself was doing the photography. In his journal entry for May 18, 1897, for example, Brewster writes:
“I visited the Hermit’s nest in the Brown clearing taking five photographs of it. The [female] was on the nest and for a Hermit sat very closely allowing me to set up the camera & focus on her at a distance of about 4 ft. but gliding away just as I was about to expose a second plate. She would not return to her eggs, however, while the camera was in position although I waited for her nearly an hour.”
Whether or not Gilbert was taking the picture, it is clear that he played a major role assisting with various aspects of Brewster’s photography. Inscriptions on the verso of photographic prints reveal that Gilbert owned darkroom apparatus and copied glass plate negatives to make prints. In a journal entry dated May 29, 1897 Brewster writes: “In the forenoon I took several photographs (with Gilbert’s help) in the gulf at the head of Great Island and along the western shore of the Sweat Cove.” Though Brewster was taking the pictures, Gilbert was assisting in some fashion.
It is evident that Gilbert was an invaluable assistant and friend who greatly facilitated Brewster’s ornithological accomplishments. Gilbert remained in Brewster’s employ until the latter’s death in 1919. Brewster arranged for the MCZ to hire Gilbert upon his death, another attestation to Brewster’s high regard for him.
There is little on record describing Gilbert’s tasks at the MCZ, but the Annual Report of the Director sheds some light. In the Report of the Director for 1931/1932 Thomas Barbour writes: “Robert Gilbert, aided by several young men, has done excellent work in rearranging some of the exhibition halls.” In the 1933/1934 Annual Report Glover Allen writes in his Report on Mammals: “In the ever-present work of cleaning skulls and skeletal material French and Gilbert have latterly borne a helpful hand, developing some skill.” Were Gilbert doing similar tasks today, he would likely be given the title Curatorial Assistant in the MCZ. Barbour’s report intimates that, among many other skills, supervision and at least familiarity with exhibit design properly belong on Gilbert’s resume. No doubt, Gilbert’s work in Brewster’s museum prepared him well for his tasks in the MCZ.
Gilbert worked at the MCZ until his death in 1942. In his 1941/1942 Director’s report, Barbour provided the following tribute:
“On January 7, 1942 Robert A. Gilbert died. For years before he came to the Museum he had helped Mr. Brewster in many ways and his sterling personal characters of integrity, affection, courtesy, and loyalty made him not only a [sic] honor to his race but one who was proud to do everything which he did as well as he could do it, and who was beloved by us all.”
Robert Gilbert’s many talents as well as his passion, curiosity and integrity enriched Brewster’s life and pursuits. It is evident that he brought these same qualities to his work at the MCZ.
The Ernst Mayr Library is actively transcribing the digitized journals, diaries and correspondence of William Brewster, enabling full-text searching of these resources in the Biodiversity Heritage Library. It is our hope that this will facilitate digital scholarship and further interest in the life and work of Robert Gilbert. In the next blog post we will discuss this transcription work.
 Mitchell, John Hanson. 2005. Looking for Mr. Gilbert: The Reimagined Life of an African American. Washington, DC: Shoemaker.
 Mitchell, John Hanson. 2014 e-book edition. Looking for Mr. Gilbert: The Unlikely Life of the First African American Landscape Photographer. New York, New York : Open Road Distribution.
 Allen, Glover M. 1942. Obituaries. Robert A. Gilbert. The Auk 59.3: 467. JSTOR. Accessed on 25 January 2021. https://www.jstor.org/stable/4079251.