Charles Aiken

Written by Steve Ruskin, a Colorado-based historian and writer. Steve holds a PhD in History and Philosophy of Science from the University of Notre Dame.

In July of 2014 I had the pleasure of corresponding with Christina Fidler of the MVZ archives. I was completing an article for the journal Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences, published by the University of California Press. The article, “The Business of Natural History: Charles Aiken, Colorado Ornithology, and the Role of the Professional Collector,” was recently published in issue 45(3).

Charles Aiken (1850–1936) was a naturalist based in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and was an important American ornithologist at the end of the nineteenth century and into the first part of the twentieth. His bird collection, including many thousands of specimens of birds of the American West (many of which he collected himself), became one of the definitive North American bird collections. He sold specimens to major museums and his bird (and some animal) specimens are still part of the collections of places like the Smithsonian, the American Museum of Natural History, and the University of California’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology. The bulk of Aiken’s collection is housed in the University of Colorado’s Museum of Natural History.

To facilitate their work and research, naturalists in the nineteenth century had a habit of sending each other specimens through the mail. Sometimes this was to have the specimen identified by an expert. Other times this was to trade one specimen for another in a network of exchange, which furthered the advancement of knowledge of natural history among the discipline’s practitioners.

I mention all of this because I found an interesting correlation between Aiken’s selling and sharing of specimens with museums like the MVZ, and my own correspondence with Christina (who was a real joy to work with, by the way). Christina was sending me scans of correspondence between Aiken and Joseph Grinnell, the MVZ’s first director. In the process, Christina also located some highly relevant correspondence that I was not aware of, between Grinnell and another Colorado Springs naturalist, Edward Warren, who was a colleague of Aiken.

In April 1927, Grinnell had sent Aiken nineteen specimens of junco, a small North American bird, for Aiken to study. Aiken was an expert on the junco; one sub-species of that bird was even named after him. Anyway, Aiken held onto the MVZ’s junco specimens for over a year, and Grinnell was anxious to have them back. He wrote Aiken a few times, but to no avail. So, in desperation, Grinnell wrote to Warren confidentially, asking if Warren would be so kind as to “stimulate the situation” and see if he could get Aiken to return the junco specimens as soon as possible.

Some of the juncos in question

Some of the juncos in question

Warren did what he could, wandering over to Aiken’s natural history dealership one crisp October morning and gently reminding Aiken that it was about time to send the specimens back to the MVZ. Warren then wrote to Grinnell that Aiken’s shop “is a mighty poor place.” He found insect larva crawling in some specimens (not, apparently, any MVZ material) and other specimens with probable smoke damage, because Aiken “had a fire … last spring and it is wonder the loss was not greater than it was.” Aiken was nearly 80 years old at that point, stubborn and forgetful, and it took more letters and a few telegrams from Grinnell to finally get the specimens returned to the MVZ, over a year and a half after they were first sent.

Coming full circle, this historical episode in the lives of naturalists and their sharing of specimens made me think how fortunate that I, as an historian, have access to the source material I need, even when located in distant archives, by means of technology like the internet and digital scanners, as well as research institutions like the MVZ who are still willing to share material from their collections. However, unlike the process of sharing archival material a century ago, when items were sent across the country and risked being lost, damaged, or forgotten, all Christina had to do was scan copies of letters and telegrams and email them to me, with no concern that I might somehow forget to return them, harm them, or otherwise inconvenience the MVZ.

Of course, I work with written documents, not dead animal skins, so the process is much easier. But as I was writing my article on Aiken, the contrast between the way information was shared then and now, in the early twentieth century—with its chugging trains and postal systems, and the early twenty-first—with the internet and digital imaging technologies, stuck in my mind.

Who knows how technology might continue to change the way specimens are shared? Roughly a decade ago, Harvard began their E-Type Initiative to provide visual access to important type specimens in botany and entomology. But those were to be only high-resolution images. Recently, my local library installed a number of 3D printers for public use. Considering those two projects together made me think that it might not be too much of a stretch to imagine that, if 3D printing continues to advance, it might soon be feasible that a zoologist in Australia could request a “scan” of a specimen from the MVZ and, a few hours later, find a near perfect—if plastic—replica in their 3D printer’s tray.

Now that would be cool.

In conclusion, on behalf of Colorado Springs, let me take this opportunity to offer my belated apology to the MVZ for Aiken’s inconsiderateness almost 90 years ago, and thank them for their generous assistance in my own research on 19th-century natural history.

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Catching the bug

If anything has been impressed upon me about CalDay it is that kids are smarter than we think and that they are excited about science. My greatest joy participating in CalDay is answering questions from curious would be scientists. This innate curiosity is usually a trait among the researchers I’ve been lucky enough to work with. I often ask curators how they got involved in their work. What drew them to their discipline? Their stories are similar and generally woven around the ages of 6-9. This is when children go to open fields and collect butterflies, visit creeks to look for frogs, this is when kids really begin to understand the natural world. So when I meet these young kids at CalDay, I often think to myself, “This child could very well grow up to be a biologist.”

Alden Miller field notes, age 7

Alden Miller field notes, age 7

This was on my mind when I came across some oddly typed field notes from Alden Miller. The date caught me by surprise. They were dated 1913 and I realized that these were Miller’s childhood field notes. They were undoubtedly taken under the watchful eye of his father, Loye H. Miller, who at the time was the head of the Department of Natural Sciences at the Los Angeles Normal School (later to become UCLA).

I’ve shared my favorite of his notes. It is typical of the series. What strikes me most about the story he tells is that it could be from any time period. It is a story we are all familiar with. And again, it speaks to how curiosity of the natural world is hardwired in some children.  Alden Miller went on to be the MVZ’s second director but it is interesting to think that his career can be traced back to these sunny days in southern California, chasing lizards.

I look forward to the next CalDay when I’ll have the opportunity to meet more young budding scientists.

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Frank C. Clarke

Written by Chris Gordon
Graduate Intern at Simmons College
Master’s in Library and Information Science/Archives

This semester I had the privilege of working with the Frank C. Clarke field notes and correspondence spanning a relationship with Grinnell and the MVZ of nearly four decades. The correspondence and field notes begin almost simultaneously in 1911 and 1912 and while the field expeditions only last a year, Clarke continued to provide specimens and converse with Grinnell and MVZ staff via his letters until 1934.

Clarke conducted his fieldwork in a unique way, relying on informal interviews of v565_s1_p004residents and visitors to his survey areas. Much of his notes are spent relaying conversations with hunters, forest rangers and taxidermists regarding deer populations, Clarke’s field surveys were primarily conducted as deer investigations. Rather than just notes on deer species, Clarke’s interviews range across all aspects of deer life from notes on predators to the effectiveness of hunting laws. Clarke’s method of conducting his surveys gives much insight into Clarke as a person as he often adds his own opinions along with the opinions of his interviewees. Clarke had some strong opinions on government control of predators and mentions offering bounties on things like mountain lions or coyotes a few times. I didn’t expect to see so much of a personal voice in a wildlife survey and the instances where he did offer his opinion stood out.

While most of Clarke’s notes fall under deer investigations, he ends his field notes with an investigation into a population of sick ducks on Tulare Lake. Rather than simply recording his observations, Clarke initiated a series of experiments in an attempt to find the origin of the sickness. A great window into Clarke’s scientific method, I could follow his train of thought as he compiled his initial research before moving into the proper experiments. He even had healthy ducks sent in from Hayward to keep his experiments as controlled as possible. The entire section surprised me both for being so unlike his earlier fieldwork and also for diverging from my own preconceived notion of what a wildlife survey consists of.
His correspondence I found even more fascinating for the small insights they gave into Clarke and Grinnell’s friendship. Most of the letters in the collection are strictly business involving Clarke sending animal specimens into the MVZ and Grinnell sending his confirmation on receipt. But a few times they went beyond their usual businesslike manner and some personality shines through. In one instance Clarke sends a specimen of a mole and Grinnell responds by saying “A mole burrowed its way into the Museum this morning—I guess by the postal route”. After reading through dozens of more impersonal correspondence, coming across the little joke had me almost laughing out loud for its unexpectedness. Here I was expecting to read through letters cataloging a specimen donation list and I get a little Grinnell stand up. It’s nice to think that Clarke at his family farm and Grinnell at the MVZ, separated by many miles, still get the experience of a couple of colleagues, sharing a laugh over the proverbial water cooler.

The completed Inventory to the field notes of Frank C. Clarke now available on the Online Archive of California

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Historic Events

Written by Ajay Yalamanchi, third year Integrative Biology major

After working with the Thaeler collection last semester, I had the opportunity to work with the Joseph Grinnell correspondence, letters and manuscripts written by or to Grinnell over the course of three decades. Unlike the correspondence from the Thaeler collection, the Grinnell correspondence did not reveal much about Grinnell personally since the vast majority of his correspondence was rooted in his work with the occasional letters of holiday greetings. However, it was interesting to witness what Grinnell and other accomplished academics talked about and the manner in which they addressed each other.

Roosevelt   Aside from the impeccable grammar employed, a product of the time period
they lived in, all correspondence exuded an air of utmost respect and geniality highlighted by terms of endearment such as, “My Dear….” or “Very Truly Yours.” On a side note, it was also interesting that 99% of the time the correspondents only referred to each other by last name. After reading many letters, I was also mentally referring to the various correspondents only by last name. Along with cataloging the correspondents, my task also included cataloging correspondents’ institutions and origin of their correspondence, the various species mentioned, other related people mentioned, and localities mentioned.

While reading through a letter written to Grinnell by Harry Swarth on October 15, 1912, I came across a mention of President Theodore Roosevelt! Swarth informed Grinnell that “Roosevelt was shot and wounded last night at a political meeting, so Taylor just tells me, but went on with his speech anyway!” I was excited when I read this because sometimes I forget that Grinnell and his correspondents existed in the same time period and world as Roosevelt. Reading through the correspondence, it is easy to get lost in the world of academia and not consider what else was happening during that same time period. Although I know what happened when Roosevelt was shot from prior American history classes, I did not consciously make the connection that the MVZ/Grinnell sphere of existence was occurring simultaneously with other contemporary important events until I read Swarth’s letter to Grinnell. In a way, Swarth’s mention of this historical event took the metaphorical blinders off of my eyes, which made me consider what else was happening during that time period, what life was like, and what the world was like. I enjoyed finding this connection between two unrelated topics, and hope that there are more of these interesting “easter eggs” hidden in the collection!

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More from the Reprints

My quiet Friday afternoon involved working on the Reprint collection. It is a challenge not read  every title. I made it as far as #0165. This small publication was written 100 years ago by Walter P. Taylor and it is titled, Two Kinds of Conservationists. It is as pertinent today as it was a century ago:

Only a little study of the conservation situation in America is sufficient to show we have allowed certain parties at interest to take more than their rightful share of the resources of wild nature which as a matter of simple justice belong, not only to all the people now living, but also to the generations of the future indefinitely. Only a little study suffices to emphasize certain obvious necessities which must be complied with if we are to bring to bear any effective remedy.

It is at the point that there is an unconscious separation of the people into two groups; the apathetic and the active…

There are two kinds of conservationists; the conservationist of the folded hands and the conservationist of the clenched fist.

It is always a little eerie when a voice from the past speaks to us across time and space. You can read the rest of this article online. The finding aid to the Walter P. Taylor papers at the MVZ is also available online.



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Merriam papers reveal ode to an everyday mammal

Written by Greg Borman, Museum Archival Assistant

While searching for the date ranges of materials in numerous folders that make up the MVZ Archives’ Clinton Hart Merriam papers, I found myself going through correspondence, manuscripts, and notes relating to a wide variety of species. Basically, things that commonly make up a collection here at the MVZ Archives. What I didn’t count on finding, however, was an ode to a creature that we all might see on any given day.

squirrel poemIt’s not immediately clear who the author is, but the date written on the small piece of paper indicates that it’s from 1876. Our best sleuthing efforts won’t likely reveal whether this was a poem that Merriam liked or that he wrote himself. In any case, I was pleased to find this writing sample among an assortment of scientific inquiry. Merriam (1855-1942) lived a long life devoted to natural history, and studied at Yale and Columbia. He served as president of the American Society of Naturalists, Anthropological Society, Biological Society of Washington, Linnaean Society of New York, and the American Society of Mammalogists. Merriam also was one of the original founders of the National Geographic Society and acted as Chief of the U.S. Biological Survey for 25 years, doing extensive field work in every U.S. state as well as abroad. In addition, he counted Theodore Roosevelt among his circle of friends.

It’s refreshing to think that, during a busy and important life, Merriam paused to consider the poetic aspects of such an everyday animal. This is just one example of the curiosities that you can find in the MVZ Archives collections.


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The Bone Dagger Discovery

Written by Anna Hiller, Curatorial Assistant

MVZ 149262, the original Cassowary specimen, 24 September 2014, by Anna Hiller

MVZ 149262, the original Cassowary specimen, 24 September 2014, by Anna Hiller

A few weeks ago Carla Cicero (Staff Curator of Birds) and I pulled a Cassowary skeleton (Casuarius bennetti hecki) to send a humerus to a researcher for sectioning. Since the Cassowary is an example of a primitive flightless bird (ratite), their bones contain important clues to bird evolution and potential ancestral characteristics. We soon discovered that the specimen (MVZ Bird 149262) was only a partial skeleton, with a sternum and pelvis that were bleached and worn (see photo at right). In addition, the skeleton box contained two humeri that were yellow, carved out, and clearly not from the same bird (see photos below). The carved out bones looked almost like some kind of man-made implement.

Examples of un-altered Cassowary Humeri, 24 September 2014, by Anna Hiller

Examples of un-altered Cassowary humeri, 24 September 2014, by Anna Hiller

The two carved humeri found in the skeleton box, 24 September 2014, by Anna Hiller

The two carved humeri found in the skeleton box (Cassowary bone daggers), 24 September 2014, by Anna Hiller

We proceeded to show the carved bones to people around the MVZ. To me they looked like salad tongs, but Michelle Koo (GIS and Bioinformatics Specialist) suggested that maybe they were used for medicinal purposes. Chris Conroy (Staff Curator of Mammals) was closest when he said that they looked like ‘tools.’ We went to the MVZ Bird Collection catalog card and indeed the skeleton contained a note of 2 ‘tools’ (see photo below). Because the sternum and pelvis were picked up by Alden Miller (MVZ Director and Curator of Birds, 1939 – 1965) on 21 October 1962, we also looked at Miller’s original field catalog and journal to see if we could get more information. His catalog didn’t mention the tools, and unfortunately the journal page is missing for that day. So we may never know where these tools actually came from.

Note found on the MVZ Catalog Card for the Cassowary, 24 September 2014, by Anna Hiller

Note found on the MVZ Catalog Card for the Cassowary, 24 September 2014, by Anna Hiller

However, out of curiosity, Carla went to our trusty friend Google and typed in ‘Cassowary Bone Tools’… and found tons of photos that looked just like the specimen! The two tools are actually Cassowary bone daggers. They were used in Papua New Guinea for hunting and ceremonial purposes.  Yet another exciting day in curatorial! You never quite know what treasures are hidden in the depths of MVZ…

Carla Cicero (left) and Anna Hiller (right) with the now-identified Cassowary Bone Daggers, 1 October 2014.

Carla Cicero (left) and Anna Hiller (right) with the now-identified Cassowary bone daggers, 1 October 2014.

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