Cold War Exchanges: USSR and UC Berkeley

Written by Salaam Sbini, a fourth year history student participating in the IMLS, “Strategic Stewardship for Sustaining the Archives of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology” project.

Every so often I go through a correspondence file that goes beyond the United States’ borders and territories. Dr. Vladimir Evgenevich Sokolov’s file was a correspondence that was a reminder of America’s relations past its domestic realm, its relations with the formerly named USSR, and its pursuit of education. The first of the correspondence letters was a detailed itinerary report for Dr. Sokolov’s visit to the United States in 1965, including a long stay at the University of California Berkeley, Museum of Vertebrate Zoology (MVZ). This itinerary was put together and sent by the “Committee on Friendly Relations Among Foreign Students,” an organization that facilitated international students, scholars, and professors visits and stays at universities and educational institutions – now known as the International Student Service.

Vladimir Evgenevich Sokolov: 1928-1998 American Society of Mammalogists

Dr. Sokolov was a pioneer in the environmental movement in Russia, and one of Russia’s first global sustainability advocates. Taking after his father, a zoology professor, Dr. Sokolov was a zoologist and renown leader in mammalogy. His area of expertise was on the form and functions of mammalian skin. His published works from Moscow State University and his general dissertation work from the Moscow Fur Institute in 1953 became internationally acclaimed. An ardent internationalist, he organized grouped zoological excursions with different foreign scientific organizations in different parts of the world. In 1965, Dr. Sokolov began his first organized visits to the United States, touring Washington D.C., Yale, New York, Minneapolis, Missoula, to the West Coast, Seattle, San Francisco, Utah, Los Angeles. His arrangements orchestrated through “Inter-University Committee on Travel Grant” on behalf of UC Berkeley and other universities such as UCLA, Harvard, and Yale with the presence of a representative of the Soviet Ministry of Higher Education.

The letters, including details of travel reports, government regulation citations of Soviet scholarly visits, and caution of visa disapproval that are requested by the Soviet Union were a reflection of the turbulent times between the USSR and the United States. The year of Dr. Sokolov’s visit was when President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered american troops into Vietnam. The year before was the fall of Khrushchev, two years before that was the infamous Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Yet with the political climate and sociopolitical occurrences that took shape in 1965, there was a push to bring Dr. Sokolov to the MVZ and have him share his scholarly expertise to students across the country. This was a moment of transcending propaganda and politics, in exchange of intellectual discussion and discoveries. May we all push toward human progress and scientific discovery.


Shishkin, Vladimir S., and Robert S. Hoffmann. “Vladimir Evgenevich Sokolov: 1928-1998.” Journal of Mammalogy 80, no. 4 (1999): 1361-364.



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Dearly Departed: Captain John Bollons

Written by Helen Yang, a fourth year student participating in the IMLS, “Strategic Stewardship for Sustaining the Archives of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology” project.

Equally as important as the researchers who study the MVZ’s specimens are the collectors who acquire these animals to make research possible in the first place. One such figure was John Peter Bollons, a sea captain, ethnographer, and naturalist from England. In his file are some of the oldest letters I’ve yet encountered – the earliest from 1923. His elegant handwriting on weathered but well-preserved paper answers a request from the MVZ’s first director, Joseph Grinnell, to obtain bird skins from New Zealand to add to our collection. (Specifically requested were Royal Albatross, Giant Fulmar, and Crested Penguin.) Although time constraints prevented Bollons from fulfilling the request, his correspondence remains in the archives as a fascinating glimpse into his life and the time period in which he lived.


Captain John Bollons. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Bollons was known for two passions: natural history and Maori culture. This latter interest began when he was shipwrecked near Bluff Harbor and was taken in and cared for by a Maori family. Endeared by their hospitality, he decided to remain in New Zealand, working on a variety of vessels until he became captain of the government service steamer Hinemoa. He was fluent in the Maori language and loved it so much that he gave each of his eight children Maori middle names.

Throughout his life, he sailed along the coasts of New Zealand performing a variety of jobs including servicing lighthouses, charting coasts, rescuing castaways, and carrying scientific expeditions. He did his own collecting along the way; over his lifetime he amassed an impressive collection of over 5000 natural history specimens and Maori artifacts. His correspondence with MVZ continues until 1927 – just two years before his death. It inspires me that even in the end of his life, he was still doing what he loved: exploring the coasts of New Zealand.


“Captain John Peter Bollons: a mariner and collector.” Museum of New Zealand, (accessed 6 March 2017)

Gavin McLean. “Bollons, John Peter”, from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 6 March 2017)

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“An Unexpected Inquiry: Mosaic from Antioch, Syria 1938”

Written by Salaam Sbini, a fourth year history student participating in the IMLS, “Strategic Stewardship for Sustaining the Archives of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology” project.

The brown manila folders filled with correspondence letters and photos I go through are filled with various inquiries–usually the same patterns of inquiries between the MVZ and organizations, scientists, and universities. Inquiries for different skins, animal acquirement, requests of loans, or return of loans, and conference scheduling from Paraguay to Havana, Cuba to Berkeley, California. I have the chance to look at the lives of individuals who pioneered in their field and their daily thoughts, tasks, and interests from the vantage point of a reader, decades later.

A letter from Edgar C. Schenck took me by surprise. As I went through three letters initially addressed to Joseph Grinnell, and a photo in his file, I was trying to decide if he was our usual candidate of either an ornithologist, herpetologist, biologist, or zoologist–he was none of those. Schenck was the Director of the Honolulu Academy of Arts from 1934-1947 and had his last position as the director of the Brooklyn Museum before he passed in 1959. He had a keen interest in Oriental and Polynesian art, but his life was cut short at the age of 49 from a heart attack as he was in Istanbul, Turkey returning from Pakistan.

A man in the field of the fine arts, Schenck was a common contributor to publications of the Art Bulletin, the College Art Journal, and publications around archeology. This begs the questions as to why Schneck was contacting the Museum! Schenck had acquired a mosaic pavement from “Antioch, Syria,” today considered a city in modern day Turkey. Antakya is close to Syria’s border, and was considered part of the Syrian territory until 1939 when the Republic of Turkey acquired the city. The mosaic depicted a fauna of the region. Schenck was hoping Professor Grinnell would be able to identify the animals on the mosaic, their habitat, and if the depicted animals were “in or around Antioch.” Hoping to receive any available photographs of the animals from the MVZ or geographical assurance, Schenck was directed to the British Museum who was better versed in the geographic region, and because Professor Grinnell was on sabbatical.


With this correspondence we can take away that the year 1938 was a time Antioch was considered part of Syria, but also why the MVZ was contacted and used for various endeavors, even including art.


“Schenck, Edgar Craig, 1909-1959,” accessed February 27, 2017,

“History of Antakya (Hatay), Turkey,” accessed February 27, 2017,

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Dearly Departed: Hilda Hempl Heller

Written by Ashley Lucckesi, a third year student studying Public Health and Molecular &  Cell Biology, participating in the IMLS, “Strategic Stewardship for Sustaining the Archives of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology” project.

Hilda Hempl Heller, by Watson Davis, 1924, Smithsonian Institution Archives. Image # SIA2008-3769.

Hilda Hempl Heller, by Watson Davis, 1924, Smithsonian Institution Archives. Image # SIA2008-3769.

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve had the opportunity of peeking into the lives of many scientists all over the world who have communicated with the MVZ. These files encompass more than the actual correspondence; they offer a glimpse into the lives of the courageous and intelligent scientists who made groundbreaking work in all fields of science. As a woman pursuing a career in science, it has been particularly inspirational to come across the name of a female scientist amongst the sea of male scientists.  

One female scientist I’ve had the opportunity of reading about is the bacteriologist, Hilda Hempl Heller. Her ex-husband and zoologist Edmund Heller, was particularly well known for his expeditions in South Africa with the Smithsonian Institute.¹ Hilda and Edmund were married at this time, and she joined him on many of his expeditions through South Africa. However, many of Hilda’s adventures and contributions have gone unnoticed.

Despite women having remarkably narrow opportunities for higher education, Hilda persevered and excelled. Hilda graduated from Stanford in 1914, with a degree in biology and emphases in bacteriology and zoology. She eventually obtained her doctorate in 1920 at the University of California.³

After divorcing her husband in 1928, Hilda went on her own adventures and scientific expeditions.³ Most notably, she conducted research and fieldwork in Peru for many years. Hilda’s correspondence with the MVZ was between 1951 and 1952, which was during the time of one of her field studies in Peru. During this period, she was working closely with the MVZ under Carl B. Koford, studying mammals.

Hilda also made great scientific strides on classifying and isolating anaerobic bacteria in the 1920s and 1930s.² However, many of her publications weren’t made available until recent years. Despite the lack of formal recognition of her scientific achievements and expeditions, her story is utterly inspiring for the current and future generations of women in science. Her ability to rise above negative societal stereotypes and overcome patterns of discrimination in the scientific community is empowering, and demonstrates the level of courage and strength it took to be a successful woman in a male-dominated field. I admire Hilda for her fortitude and efforts in paving the way for future female scientists, and I hope to follow in her footsteps for future generations.

List of References

  1. Bracaglia, R. (2016, May 16). Weird and Wonderful: The Surprising Mrs. Hilda Hempl Heller [Web log post]. Retrieved from
  2. Heller, H. H. (2013). Classification of the Anaerobic Bacteria. Isha Books.
  3. Parilla, L. (2015, July 15). Hilda Hempl Heller, in the Field [Web log post]. Retrieved from
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Dearly Departed: Isabella Abbott, Algae Taxonomist and Kelp Chef Extraordinaire

Written by Helen Yang, a fourth year student participating in the IMLS, “Strategic Stewardship for Sustaining the Archives of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology” project.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve gotten to know hundreds of vibrant personalities through only snippets of their correspondences with the MVZ. One of the first whom I “met” in such a way was Dr. Isabella Abbott, an educator and ethnobotanist from Hawaii. Her correspondence with the MVZ comprises mainly of letters and documents she penned as secretary of The Western Society of Naturalists.

Dr. Isabella Abbott's correspondence file in the archives.

Dr. Isabella Abbott’s correspondence file in the archives.

As a woman pursuing science, it’s always inspiring to learn of others before me who have not only succeeded and excelled in their fields, but done so at times in the past when the social climate would have been significantly less welcoming. Abbott received her PhD in algal taxonomy from UC Berkeley in 1950 and was hired as a lecturer in biology at Stanford in 1960. From this position she was promoted to a full professor, bypassing the assistant and associate professor titles, and became one of the world’s leading marine botanists in her time.

Abbott was a pioneer in many ways: first native Hawaiian woman to receive a science PhD, first woman full professor in Stanford’s biology department, not to mention discovering and naming over 200 different algae species. Gifted as a cook as well as a scientist, she was known for her delicious recipes using Bull Kelp (Nereocystis luetkeana).


Kelp, the subject of Dr. Abbott’s research and recipes.

Abbott’s achievements were so great that in 2005 she was designated a Living Treasure of Hawaii. She remained an enthusiastic seaweed researcher as a Professor Emerita at Stanford all the way to her passing in 2010.

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Dearly Departed: The fascinating lives and letters in the MVZ Correspondence Collection

The MVZ Archives has three new undergraduate students working on the IMLS funded project, “Strategic Stewardship for Sustaining the Archives of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology.” Our students are working on the MVZ’s active correspondence collection and identifying correspondents who are deceased. The files of these individuals will be accessioned to the MVZ historical correspondence collection and made available for research.

A by product of this activity is that our students are discovering the fascinating lives of the individuals who have corresponded with the MVZ. They will be sharing the lives and letters of these correspondents in our new blog series, “Dearly Departed.”

As part of our daily work, Archivists research individuals by reading obituaries and memoriams. While it is a solemn activity, I am always moved by the fact that a piece of someone’s life and commitment to science is at the MVZ. Their letters or field notes reflect a moment in a person’s life (usually when he/she was a young graduate student), exploring the more remote corners of the world. I hope that later in their lives, they remember these trips fondly.

I spoke about this in a recent conversation with colleagues and I found that I wasn’t alone. Many archivists come across stories that can be quite tragic. It’s not something you can prepare for or something you’ll read in a peer reviewed paper but it is a shared experience among us. We absorb these stories and can instantly recall our more haunting discoveries. For my colleague, Lesley Parilla, Cataloging Coordinator for the Smithsonian Field Book Project, it is Louis di Zerega Mearns’s obituary which was written by his own father, Edgar Mearns. Louis died of diphtheria at the age of 26. You can read Parilla’s moving account on the Smithsonian Field Book Project blog.

I’ve come across several moving stories at the MVZ but there are two that I think of often. George Melendez Wright‘s untimely death in an automobile accident at the age of 31 is especially tragic. His contributions to the National Parks is extraordinary considering his short life. When I was working on his papers, I realized that my daughters were the same ages as his at the time of his death: 2 and 4 years old. It was and still is a reminder to me of how every day is a gift.

And I will never forget the day I came across Alden Miller’s memoriam file. It was marked “Confidential until all authors are deceased”. Inside the file were letters solicited by Ernst Mayr of Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. The solicitation for letters was in preparation of Mayr’s memoriam of Alden Miller. Included in the letters were several from Loye “Padre” Miller, Alden’s father. Like Parilla, I was deeply moved by the writings of a parent, reflecting on their child’s life and death. I agree with Parilla, these stories stay with you and deserve to be brought out of folders and boxes; to be remembered and honored.

You can read the first letter from Loye Miller to Ernst Mayr and the first page of his series of notes. There are too many touching anecdotes to document them all here but Miller’s reflections on learning the news of Alden’s death is poetic and memorable:

and then came that “wind which swept my garden”. In ninety years one has to meet many head winds but this was a mighty cold and desert wind. It leaves but little greenery in the garden.

Please keep checking back on our blog as we highlight extraordinary individuals and stories connected to the MVZ.


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Poem of the day

The MVZ Archives will be working with the UC Berkeley History Department to provide students with access to primary sources. Students will be able to use our materials to answer larger questions relating to the study of natural history and potentially, the history of the MVZ.

While prepping for a visit from the class, I came across a poem sent from Annie Alexander in 1946, to a friend addressed as “Nonie”.  Alexander had a deep appreciation for poetry, and we often find poems (sometimes originals from Alexander!) littered throughout her letters. This one seems more relevant than ever. It was written by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe:

Keep not standing fix’d and rooted;
Briskly venture, briskly roam;
Head and hand, where’er thou foot it,
And stout heart are still at home.
In what land the sun does visit,
Brisk are we, whate’er betide;
To give space for wandering is it
That the world was made so wide.

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