Whitney South Sea Expedition of the American Museum of Natural History (1920-1941)

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Exist Dates

1920 - 1941

Biographical or Historical Note

The Whitney South Sea Expedition of the American Museum of Natural History was an ornithological expedition originated by Dr. Leonard C. Sanford and funded by Harry Payne Whitney. Their mission was to systematically explore the many islands of Polynesia, Melanesia, and Micronesia for previously undiscovered or little-known bird specimens. At the time it was the most expansive ornithological expedition ever conceived, and active field research would last over two decades, from 1920 to 1941. During that span, five men acted as leader, assisted by scores of participants. In addition to bird specimens, botanical and anthropological specimens were also gathered. Participants additionally photographed their regions of exploration, drew maps and kept detailed diaries and notes on their voyages.

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, Harry Payne Whitney to act as the expedition’s sponsor.

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 agreement 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.

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 a successful collector of seabirds 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).

In 1929 Sanford 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.


    (1) LeCroy, Mary, “A Wing for the Birds,” Natural History 98, no. 9 (1989): 90-91.
    (2) Murphy, Robert Cushman, “Synopsis of History, Whitney South Sea Expedition and Whitney Memorial Hall,” [unpublished manuscript], (1953).
    (3) Murphy, Robert Cushman, “The Whitney South Sea Expedition of the American Museum of Natural History,” Science 56, no. 1460 (1922): 701-704.
    (4) Haffer, Jurgen, Ornithology, Evolution, and Philosophy: The Life and Science of Ernst Mayr 1904-2005. Berlin: Springer, 2008.
    (5) Bryan, Jr., Edwin Horace, “American Museum of Natural History Whitney Expedition Journals and Records, 1920 to 1935 and Chronological Itinerary,” [unpublished manuscript], (1969), in AMNH Special Collections Expedition files.
    (6) LeCroy, Mary, “Ernst Mayr at the American Museum of Natural History,” Ornithological Monographs 2005 (Ernst Mayr at 100: Ornithologist and Naturalist), no. 58 (2005): 30-49.
    (7) American Museum of Natural History, Annual Report for the Year 1940 (1941): 18.
    (8) American Museum of Natural History, Annual Report for the Year 1941 (1942): 19.
    (9) American Museum of Natural History, “Notes,” Natural History 27, no. 3 (1927): 295.


  • 1920 - 1928: Leader: Rollo H. Beck
  • 1928 - 1930: Leader: Hannibal Hamlin
  • 1930 - 1935: Leader: William F. Coultas
  • 1935 - 1940: Leader: Lindsay Macmillan
  • 1941: Leader: G. Reid Henry


OceaniaExternal link
(Expedition Site)
PolynesiaExternal link
(Expedition Site)
MelanesiaExternal link
(Expedition Site)
MicronesiaExternal link
(Expedition Site)

Related Corporate, Personal, and Family Names

American Museum of Natural History
associated dates: 1920-1941

The American Museum of Natural History sponsored the WSSE and received the collected specimens from the expedition, other than those shared with the Bishop Museum.
Beck, Ida
associated dates: 1920-1928

Ida Beck was the wife of Rollo Beck and worked on the WSSE for eight years.
Beck, Rollo Howard, 1870-1950
associated dates: 1920-1928

Beck was asked to act as the first leader of the WSSE from 1920. He stayed at that position until he left the expedition in 1928.
Bernice Pauahi Bishop MuseumExternal link
The Bishop Museum in Honolulu, Hawaii, having a similar collecting scope as the WSSE, came to a mutually agreeable collecting arrangement with AMNH. They also sent Bryan on the WSSE in 1924 as their representative.
Bryan, E. H. (Edwin Horace), 1898-1985
Bryan was affiliated with the Bernice Paulau Bishop Museum in Hawaii. He joined the WSSE as their representation for ten months in 1924 where he focused on collecting plant, insect and anthropological specimens.
Chapman, Frank M. (Frank Michler), 1864-1945
Chapman was a renowned ornithologist and Curator at the American Museum of Natural History. In that capacity he corresponded with and assisted in coordinating the WSSE from New York.
Correia, Jose G., 1881-1954
associated dates: 1923-1926

Correia was a bird collector who, with his wife Virginia, worked on the WSSE for four years. He acted as temporary leader of the expedition for 6 months in 1923.
Correia, Virginia
associated dates: 1923-1926

Virginia Correia worked on the WSSE for four years. Her husband was Jose Correia.
Coultas, William F.
associated dates: 1929-1935

Coultas joined the WSSE with his friend Eyerdam in 1929. He took on the role of leader in 1930 remained at that post until 1935.
Curtis, Charles Cutler
Curtis was an overseer on a Tahitian coconut plantation who joined the WSSE for five months in 1922. He acted as sailor as well as a collector or botanical and ornithological specimens.
Drowne, Frederick P.
associated dates: 1927-1928

Drowne was a physician who joined the WSSE as field researcher and collector, where he stayed for one year until leaving due to illness.
Eyerdam, Walter J., 1892-1974
associated dates: 1929-1930

Eyerdam joined the WSSE with his friend Coultas in 1929 and stayed as collector until 1930.
Hamlin, Hannibal, 1904-1982
associated dates: 1927-1930

Hamlin was a neurosurgeon who joined the WSSE in 1927 and acted as leader between 1928 and 1930, when he left the project.
Henry, G. Reid
Henry acted as researcher and leader of the WSSE for one year after active collecting resumed progress following a brief hiatus brought on by WWII.
Macmillan, Joy
associated dates: 1935-1940

Joy Macmillan was the wife of Lindsay Macmillan and worked on the WSSE for five years, acting as assistant.
Macmillan, Lindsay
associated dates: 1935-1940

Macmillan, a trained bird collector, acted as leader of the WSSE for five years until he left to join the Austrailian armed forces.
Mayr, Ernst, 1904-2005
Mayr joined the WSSE from 1929 to 1930. He was an influential evolutionary biologist who acted as assistant curator at AMNH.
Murphy, Robert Cushman, 1887-1973
Murphy acted as AMNH coordinator in New York for the WSSE. AN ornithologist, he was Curator and then Chair of the Department of Ornithology at AMNH.
Quayle, Ernest H.
associated dates: 1920-1922

Quayle joined Rollo Beck as an assistant field naturalist with the WSSE at the onset of the expedition until 1922 when he left the project due to illness.
Richard, Guy
associated dates: 1927-1928

Richards joined the WSSE in 1927 with Hannibal Hamlin as a field assistant and researcher. After leaving WSSE in 1929, Richards pursued a career in journalism.
Richmond, Charles Wallace, 1868-1932
Richmond was an ornithologist known for bird naming and cataloging through his Richmond Index. He provided two volumes of notes of the general region and birds of the South Pacific for the use of the WSSE participants (Bryan summary).
Sanford, Leonard Cutler, 1869-1950
Sanford was a surgeon and patron of ornithological study. A trustee of AMNH, he encouraged Whitney to support the goals and output of the WSSE.
The France
associated dates: 1922-1935

The France was the schooner purchased for the WSSE and acted as the sailing vessel for the majority of the expedition.
Whitney Hall of Oceanic Birds
The Whitney Hall of Oceanic Birds largely exhibited specimens collected by the WSSE. It too was funded by the Harry Whitney and his legacy.
Whitney, Harry Payne, 1872-1930
Whitney financially supported both the WSSE as well as the Whitney Hall of Oceanic Birds.

Related Resources

Whitney South Sea Expedition of the American Museum of Natural History Collection
associated dates: 1920-2007

Creator: American Museum of Natural History. Extent: 4.4 linear feet (bound volumes), 9.5 linear feet (20 boxes) Repository: AMNH Department of Ornithology Archives, Call number Archives Orn60.
Whitney South Sea Expedition Photographic Collection.
associated dates: 1920-1941

Creator: American Museum of Natural History. Extent: Hundreds of photos intermixed throughout eight Anthropology subject file drawers in the Special Collections of the AMNH Research Library. Repository: AMNH Special Collections Photographic Print Collection, Drawers 169 through 176.
Whitney South Sea Expedition of the AMNH, 1920-1941: Field Photographs.
associated dates: 1920-1941

Creator: American Museum of Natural History. Extent: 1 box with 50 photographs. Repository: AMNH Research Library, Special Collections, Call number PPC .W45
AMNH Department of Ornithology -- Historical Correspondence.
Creator: American Museum of Natural History. Repository: AMNH Department of Ornithology Archives, Call number Orn5.
AMNH Department of Ornithology -- Accession Records Gifts and Purchases
Creator: American Museum of Natural History. Extent: 1 folder in file drawer. Repository: AMNH Department of Ornithology Archives, Call number Orn30.
Inventory to the papers of Rollo Howard and Ida Menzies Beck
Creators: Beck, Rollo H. and Ida M. Repository: California Academy of Sciences Library; San Francisco, California, Call number MSS.036.

Written by: Kendra Meyer
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