Nichols, John T. (John Treadwell), 1883-1958

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Exist Dates

1883 - 1958

Biographical or Historical Note

Born in Jamaica Plain, Boston, Massachusetts on June 11, 1883, John Treadwell Nichols initially became involved with the American Museum of Natural History in 1900 as a field researcher for the curator of the museum’s Department of Ornithology, Dr. Frank M. Chapman. A recent graduate from a New York preparatory high school, Nichols embarked on his first voyage for scientific investigation in the winter of 1900, traveling from New York to Honolulu to collect samples and record bird and fish sightings for the department.

John Treadwell Nichols went on to study vertebrate zoology at Harvard University where he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in 1906. In 1907, the museum’s Department of Vertebrate Zoology offered him a post as an assistant for $40 a month, and he began working for the American Museum of Natural History in January under the department’s curator, Dr. J.A. Allen. In 1908, Nichols suspended work at the Museum to pursue a job in the Federal Government as a member of its division of scientific enquiry, but by 1909, he returned to the museum as a volunteer investigator of fishes. At this time, the Museum established a new Department of Ichthyology for the study of fishes and appointed Nichols the position of assistant curator of recent fishes soon after. Before the new Department, the Museum combined fish studies under its Department of Entomology, or insects.

During his initial years as assistant curator, Nichols took a course on Ichthyology at Columbia University and traveled alongside the Department’s founder, Professor Bashford Dean, collecting marine samples. In 1920, he became the associate curator and was promoted in 1927 to curator of the department, a position he served until retirement in 1957, when he achieved the status of curator emeritus. In the early part of his career at the museum, Nichols traveled extensively from Nova Scotia to Alaska, from Cuba to Honolulu, and the new Department relied heavily on his recorded observations and gathered samples overseas. Nichols kept detailed accounts of wildlife sightings throughout his career, and his journals even contain observations taken in New York City, Long Island, and his hometown of Jamaica Plains.

In addition to his curatorship, John Treadwell Nichols contributed a great deal of literature to the study of marine life. Nichols established a society devoted to the study of wildlife named Copeia in 1913. At first, the society published a few short articles and observations from various researchers in the fields of ichthyology and herpetology, but its influence and merit greatly expanded even after Nichol’s death. As curator of the Department, Nichols also published extensive works on the discoveries made on the various expeditions funded by his department in Copeia, the Bulletin of AMNH, and the American Museum Novitates.

Although Nichols did minimal field work in the latter part of his career at the museum, he over-saw and collaborated with several of the Museum’s scientific expeditions. For instance, he corresponded with the various researchers involved in the Museum Congo Expedition of 1909-1915. Nichols’ letters and instructions can be found in other personal collections kept in the Research Library’s archival collections. In 1925, Nichols joined Arthur S. Vernay on an expedition in Angola, Portuguese, West Africa, and furthermore, he helped organize and reported on the Museum’s Archbold expeditions of 1936 until 1953 to New Guinea, Cape York, and Arizona. In 1935, John Treadwell Nichols even made national headlines. After a string of shark attacks resulting in four deaths along the New Jersey coast, Nichols identified a 998-pound fish caught along the coast of New Jersey as a man-killing white shark.

He also published several books throughout his career, including “Representative North American Fresh-Water Fishes” in 1942 and “The Fresh-Water Fishes of China” in 1943. In the latter book, Nichols investigated the theory that some fresh-water fish migrated to American from China when the two continents were still connected. In addition to his scientific writings, Nichols published three volumes of poetry on the ocean titled Sea Rimes from 1921 until 1923.

Alongside his large body of literary contributions, John Treadwell Nichols held many esteemed positions in societies devoted to the study of wildlife in the United States. In the late twenties, he was president of the Linnaean Society of New York, a long-time member of the Explorers Club in New York City, and helped found the American Society of Herpetologists and Ichthyologists in 1946, where he served as secretary, president, and honorary president. Although he remained active in Museum affairs even after his retirement, Nichols withdrew from the field and didn’t publish through the societies he’d been involved in earlier due to tensions with old colleagues. These included some of Nichols’ old collaborators, most notably Dr. C.M. Breder Jr., a colleague he’d published several articles with in the beginning of his career, and Dr. C. Hubbs, who presided over Nichols’ Copeia in the forties.

On November 10, 1958, John Treadwell Nichols died in Garden City, Long Island, New York. In the 1980s, the Museum contacted his two sons, David and Floyd Nichols, for their father’s various manuscripts, correspondence, and journals, after the seventy-fifth anniversary of Copeia renewed interest in the naturalist who had become so reclusive in the years leading up to his death.


    Library of Congress Name Authority File
    From biographical note for Nichols's archive collection at the AMNH Library, Mss .N531-.N532, written by Erin Flynn, 2012.
    AMNH Annual Report, 1958, p. 26
    AMNH Research Library: Archives. “Personal Papers.” American Museum Congo Expedition, H.F. Osborn, R.C. Andrews, and W.K. Gregory.
    “Obituaries: John Treadwell Nichols.” The Auk, Vol. 88, No. 2 (Apr., 1971), pp. 477-480.
    “John T. Nichols, Museum Authority on Fishes, Dies.” New York World-Telegram, November 11, 1958
    Fowler, Henry W. “John Treadwell Nichols,” Copeia 2, April 1959
    Wallace, Ed. “44 Years of Staring at Pickled Fish Leaves Curator Serene and Happy.” New York World-Telegram and Sun. October 2, 1951

Related Corporate, Personal, and Family Names

American Museum of Natural History
associated dates: 1907-1952

Related Resources

John Treadwell Nichols papers, (bulk 1890-1958)
Repository: AMNH Special Collections, Mss .N531-.N532

Written by: Iris Lee
Last modified: 2018 October 1


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