Beck, Rollo Howard 1870-1950

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1870 August 26 - 1950 November 22

Biographical or Historical Note

ROLLO HOWARD BECK was born on August 26, 1870 in Los Gatos, CA to Laura Elizabeth Vance Beck and Thomas Beck. His sister, Dr. Edna Beck Keisler, worked as a missionary in India.

During Beck’s lifetime, he was considered the foremost ornithologist in the field. He was renowned for his ability to quickly stuff and prepare a bird for mounting. From 1912-1917 Beck was leader of the Brewster-Sanford Expedition; an ornithological expedition focused on collecting South American seabird specimens for AMNH. Beck returned from the voyage with 7,853 bird skins.

In 1920 Beck led the AMNH Whitney South Sea Expedition, an ornithological expedition originated by Dr. Leonard C. Sanford and funded by Harry Payne Whitney, with the mission of systematically exploring Polynesia, Melanesia, and Micronesia for previously undiscovered or little-known bird specimens. It was the largest ornithological expedition ever conceived. Active field research was conducted from 1920 to 1941. Beck led the project until 1928. He returned to New York with over 40,000 bird, plant and anthropological specimens.

Beck published several accounts of his journeys on the South Sea Expedition including “The Voyage of the ‘France,’” in a 1923 edition of Natural History magazine and a book published by AMNH in 1929 titled “A collector in the land of the birds of paradise.” Beck also published a short autobiography, which focused on his ornithological pursuits, in Robert Cushman Murphy's 1936 book "Oceanic Birds of South America.”

Rollo Beck moved to Berryessa, California at the age of 6. There he became friends with neighbor Frank H. Holmes, a well-known bird collector in the area, who taught Beck to hunt and mount birds. Beck left Berryessa grammar school before completing the 8th grade. He joined the American Ornithologist’s Union and the newly founded Cooper Ornithological Club of San Jose, California in 1894. He departed on his first scientific field work in 1894 when he accompanied Holmes to the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Lake Tahoe and Yosemite Valley where they collected pine forest birds specimens for six weeks.

From 1897-1901 Beck joined an ornithological expedition to the Galapagos Islands. Funded by Lord Walter Rothschild, the focus of the voyage was to collect land birds as well as the giant tortoises of the islands. From 1901-1907 Beck collected specimens for the California Academy of Science. Starting in 1908 Beck participated in an expedition to Alaska to collect specimens for A.C. Bent’s series “Life Histories of North American Birds,” a project that lasted several years.

Rollo Beck married Ida May Menzies of Berryessa, California on August 11, 1909. Since 1907, Ida had accompanied Beck on brief collecting expeditions, often acting as his assistant. The Becks traveled together for the entirety of the Brewster-Sanford and Whitney South Sea expeditions. The Becks did not have any children.

When the Becks retired from the Whitney South Sea Expedition in 1928, Dr. Leonard C. Sanford requested they work on an unrelated project in New Guinea. The Becks collected ornithological specimens for nine months before their return to New York. The Becks retired to California in 1930 where they worked on their fruit farm in Planada for the remainder of their lives. Rollo Beck continued to collect bird specimens until his death. One of his last recorded donations was of a Yellow-headed Blackbird in Merced, California on April 27, 1950 at age of 79. Beck died on November 22, 1950.


    Library of Congress Name Authority File no. 2012084432
    Beck, Rollo. “The Voyage of the ‘France,’” Natural History, 23, no. 1 (1923): 32-43.
    Murphy, Robert Cushman. Oceanic Birds of South America. New York: American Museum of Natural History, c1936.
    Rexer, Lyle and Rachel Klein. American Museum of Natural History: 125 Years of Expedition and Discovery. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers in association with the American Museum of Natural History, 1995.
    Rollo Beck Timeline. Beck, Rollo vertical file. AMNH Research Library.


  • 1870 August 26: Rollo Beck is born in Los Gatos, CA
  • 1876: Beck family moves to Berryessa, CA where Rollo meets Frank H. Holmes, an avid bird collector.
  • 1894: Joins the American Ornithologist’s Union and the Cooper Ornithological Club of San Jose, CA.
  • 1894: Beck leaves on first scientific field trip, as assistant to Holmes. They collect pine forest bird specimens from the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Lake Tahoe and Yosemite Valley for six weeks.
  • 1897 - 1901: Beck joins Lord Walter Rothschild’s expedition to the Galapagos Islands to collect and study land birds and the giant tortoises of the region.
  • 1901 - 1907: Beck collects specimens for the California Academy of Science. Beck is sponsored by L.M. Loomis.
  • 1908: Beck joins expedition to Alaska to collect specimens for A.C. Bent’s series “Life Histories of North American Birds.”
  • 1909 August 11: Beck marries Ida May Menzies of Berryessa, CA.
  • 1912 - 1917: Beck leads the Brewster-Sanford Expedition in South America, an ornithological expedition. He returns with 7,853 bird skins.
  • 1920 - 1928: Beck is chosen to lead the Whitney South Sea Expedition, remains leader until retirement in 1928.
  • 1921: Beck purchases vessel for the expedition: the France, a seventy-five ton schooner
  • 1926 February 16: Beck rediscovers a lost species of bird, Procellaria munda (as named by Heinrich Kuhl). The bird had first been recorded on Februrary 15, 1769 during Captain James Cook 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 since the 1926 resurgence. Beck collected six specimens.
  • 1928 June - 1929: On the way back to North America, Dr Leonard C. Sanford asks the Becks to go to New Guinea on an ornithological expedition unrelated to the Whitney South Sea Expedition. The Becks collect samples in New Guinea for nine months before returning to New York.
  • 1930 - 1950: The Becks retire to their fruit farm in Planada, CA. Rollo continues to collect, mount and donate bird specimens until his death.
  • 1950 November 22: Rollo Beck dies at the age of 80.



Written by: Cara Shatzman
Last modified: 2016 November 11


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