1920 - 1941
The expedition was the brainchild of AMNH trustee Dr. Leonard C. Sanford. He was a surgeon and professor at the Yale University Medical School who was also an avid bird collector and patron of ornithological study (1, p. 90). Sanford envisioned a series of voyages to explore the islands of the South Pacific to collect the area’s little or unknown indigenous ornithological specimens (1, p. 90). As designed, such a methodical and prolonged undertaking would prove to be costly. Sanford recruited his friend, the financier Harry Payne Whitney to act as the expedition’s sponsor. It is unknown what ultimately motivated Whitney to agree; in one report he claims he was ‘hogtied’ by the persuasive Sanford (1, p. 90). Whitney initially contributed $20,000 a year to finance the South Sea expedition for five years, and then continued to support the expedition for another decade (2, p. 2).
With funding secured, AMNH staff could begin planning. Museum President Henry Fairfield Osborn commenced arranging permissions from the French and British governments to work in their colonial possessions. An arrangement to exchange specimens was also arranged with the Bishop Museum of Hawaii, which was conducting its own research in the area (3, p. 702). The expedition was considered timely. In 1922, Museum ornithologist Robert Cushman Murphy detailed the critical reasons for the expedition to take place at this time: “Extinction of the native animals [of Polynesia] has long been in progress. The introduction of pigs, dogs and cats and even of the mongoose, into islands which had no native mammalian fauna; the rapid spread of the alien minah and weaver birds, and of a hawk imported from Australia; and the periodic concentration of copra workers, or of pearl or bêche-de-mer fishermen, upon small islets, make it certain that many of the native birds are doomed as surely as the splendid race of native people” (3, p. 703).
Five men led the expedition during the course of its run, all of them chosen by Murphy, who managed the expedition from New York (4, p. 144). The first leader selected was Rollo H. Beck, who had earned a reputation as the most successful collector of seabirds in the world through his work in South America on the AMNH Brewster-Sanford Expedition (3, p. 701). Accompanied by his wife Ida and other collectors and assistants, Beck commenced the expedition and remained with it until March 1928 (5). Hannibal Hamlin, a neurosurgeon who had joined the expedition in 1927, succeeded Beck and remained at his post until 1930 (5). For the expedition's permanent successor, Murphy had planned to appoint Ernst Mayr, a German ornithologist distinguished for his collections in New Guinea. But because of a long delay in Mayr's receipt of Murphy's offer, (6, p. 36) the job went to William Coultas, a professional collector of natural specimens (4, p. 80) who, with his friend Walter Eyerdam, had been hired to the WSSE one year prior (5). By early 1930, Hamlin had handed over leadership to Coultas, who remained as leader until 1935 (5). After a short hiatus in collecting, he in turn was succeeded by the Australian collector Lindsay Macmillan who, like Beck, was aided by his wife and field assistant Joy. In 1940 Macmillan quit the expedition to join the Australian armed forces (7). Little is known about the last of the expedition leaders, G. Reid Henry, except that he was employed in 1940 to work in Australia and stayed there until mid-1941, when amid World War II, the expedition came to a halt (8).
The success of the expedition was made possible through the many collectors, assistants, visitors and field researchers who accompanied these leaders. These men and women included Edwin Bryan, Ernst Mayr, Walter Eyerdam, Ernest Quayle, Guy Richards, Frederick Drowne, and Jose G. and Virginia Correia. Additionally, numbers of native assistants, ships crewmen and local liaisons worked on the expedition. It has been noted that the women who took part in the expedition - Ida Beck, Virginia Correia and later Joy Macmillan - contributed immeasurably in their roles as field assistants and preparators. (2, p. 3) In New York, Ernst Mayr, who now worked at AMNH, handled the management of the incoming flow of these specimens. Besides supervising their description and cataloging, he also began to act as advisor for the field researchers (6, p. 44). The expedition was naturally a nautical voyage, and many vessels were procured throughout the time period. Most notably, the schooner France was purchased in 1922 and remained in service to the expedition until 1932 (5).
The significance of the Whitney South Sea expedition spreads far and wide. The collection and data sets helped to provide a database for all subsequent studies of birds inhabiting the world's most extensive set of islands (4, p. 147). The expedition's results are the source of Mayr's seminal argument for the role of geography in the origin of new species; (6, p. 43) even as early as 1922, Murphy could report that the birds of the tropical trade wind belt in the South Pacific were, for the most part, specifically racially distinct from those of the Horse Latitudes to the south (3, p. 704). Among the many important specimens collecting during the WSSE was the rediscovery of the lost species Procellaria munda (as named by Heinrich Kuhl). The bird had first been recorded on February 15, 1769 during Captain James Cook’s initial trip around the world. At the time, the bird (common name Little Shearwater) was sketched and described in a manuscript by Carl Solander but the specimen was thrown away and had not been seen until Beck spotted the bird in 1926 (9).
Throughout its tenure, the expedition contributed tens of thousands of specimens, greatly increasing the Ornithology department’s collection. Because of this influx to the collection, Sanford realized the need for a new display space. In 1929 he again approached Whitney, who once more provided financial support for the project that would bear his legacy in name. After his death in 1930, his family continued its support as a memorial to him. (1, p. 90-91). Officially dedicated in 1939, and formally dedicated in 1953, the Whitney Wing was known to be the greatest collection of birds in the world, with examples of 99 percent of the known species of birds, (1, p. 91) but it was closed in 1999 and is no longer open to visitors.
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