1909- - present
Biographical or Historical Note
- The early history of the Department of Herpetology at the American Museum
of Natural History can be traced back to 1870, with the museum’s acquisition of
Alexander Philipp Maximilian’s vertebrate collection. During the late 19th and
early 20th centuries, care of the herpetological collection was shifted between
various zoological departments, until in 1909 a Department of Herpetology and
Ichthyology was formalized. Herpetology was first established as a separate
department in 1920, but in the years since has been combined in certain periods
with experimental biology (as the Department of Herpetology and Experimental
Biology from 1928 to 1934), with fossil reptiles (as the Department of
Amphibians and Reptiles from 1942 to 1944), and again with ichthyology (as the
Department of Herpetology and Ichthyology from 1987 to 1997).
collection of reptile and amphibian specimens grew rapidly during the early to
mid-20th century, from some 6000 specimens in 1910 to 110,000 specimens by 1940.
A large percentage of these specimens were obtained from expeditions conducted
by department staff throughout the 1920s and 30s, during the museum’s ‘golden
age of exploration’. By 1950, department staff had organized and participated in
over 25 expeditions in North America, Central America, the Caribbean and New
Guinea. The second half of the 20th century saw further important expedition
work and herpetological research conducted in the southwestern United States,
New Guinea, and Central and South America. Early curators of the Department of
Herpetology stressed the importance of using the knowledge and specimens gained
from these expeditions in implementing an exhibition program for reptiles and
amphibians. The department has been responsible for the development of two major
permanent halls at the museum: the Hall of Reptiles and Amphibians, in existence
from 1927 to 1968, and the current Hall of the Biology of Reptiles and
Amphibians, opened in 1977.
(1) Myers, Charles W. A History of Herpetology at the American Museum
of Natural History. New York: American Museum of Natural History,
(2) American Museum of Natural History. Annual Reports. New York:
American Museum of Natural History, 1884/85-2010.
(3) American Museum of Natural History. "Herpetology: More About the
Department." Accessed November 18, 2014,
- 1870: The American Museum of Natural History acquires the vertebrate
collection of Alexander Philipp Maximilian, including 2000 fish, reptile
and amphibian specimens, which are initially stored in the Arsenal
Building in Central Park (1, p. 95). Early herpetological collections
are cared for by a Curator of Zoology (1, p. 7).
- 1885: Herpetological collections move from the Arsenal to storage in the
new museum (1, p. 95). Amphibians and reptiles are included in the
Department of Marine Zoology, under the care of curator J. B. Holder (2,
1953 p. 31; 2, 1884-1885 p. 5; 2, 1885-1886 p. 5).
- 1886 - 1890: Herpetology at the museum falls under the Department of Invertebrate
Zoology, Fishes and Reptiles (2, 1886-1887 p. 5; 2, 1887-1888 p. 5; 2,
1888-1889 p. 16; 2, 1889-1990 p. 19; 2, 1890-1891 p. 28). *this
department name is used loosely and variably in the Annual Reports
1886-7 to 1890-1.
- 1891 - 1900: Herpetology is included in a department encompassing mammals, birds,
fishes and reptiles, under the curatorship of J. A. Allen (2, 1890-1891
p. 5; 2, 1891 p. 5; 2, 1892 p. 5; 2, 1893 p. 5; 2, 1894 p. 5; 2, 1895 p.
5; 2, 1896 p. 5; 2, 1897 p. 5; 2, 1898 p. 7; 2, 1899 p. 7; 2, 1900 p.
21). *the name of this department is variable and used loosely in the
Annual Reports 1891 to 1896, and is referred to as the Department of
Vertebrate Zoology in the Annual Reports 1897 to 1900.
- 1900: Early exhibition of the herpetology collection includes the addition
of four mounted reptile specimens to the museum’s east wing (1, p.
- 1901 - 1908: The Department of Invertebrate Zoology is given charge of the
herpetological collections (2, 1901 p. 28; 1, p. 95).
- 1906: By this year the second floor’s East Mammal Hall and tower room saw
increased activity in the addition of herpetological exhibits (1, p. 63,
- 1909 - present: New
York The Department of Herpetology is part of the American Museum of Natural
History, located in New York.
- 1909 July: The Department of Herpetology and Ichthyology is formalized,
representing living reptiles and batrachians, and living and extinct
fishes (1, p. 8; 2, 1910 p. 36). The department consists of Bashford
Dean as Curator of Fishes and Reptiles, two additional ichthyologists,
and one herpetologist – Mary Cynthia Dickerson, initially appointed
‘Assistant on living reptiles and batrachians’ (1, p. 8).
- 1910: The new Department of Herpetology and Ichthyology’s first inventory
finds 6000 herpetological specimens in the collection, representing 550
species of reptiles and 150 species of amphibians. Dickerson strongly
encourages growth of the collection during her curatorship, which
expands to over 31,500 specimens by 1920 (1, p. 109).
- 1910 - 1919: Creation and early exhibition of the museum’s first reptile and
amphibian habitat groups, directed and supervised by Dickerson (1, p.
71-79; 2, 1910 p. 39; 2, 1911 p. 47; 2, 1912 p. 57; 2, 1913 p. 61; 2,
1914 p. 66; 2, 1915 p. 67; 2, 1916 p. 73; 2, 1917 p. 77; 2, 1918 p. 75;
2, 1919 p. 85).
- 1911 January 18: Dickerson promoted to Assistant Curator of Herpetology (2, 1911 p.
- 1913: Opening of the first hall specifically for herpetology exhibits,
displaying Dickerson’s habitat groups in the central part of the
museum’s 77th street façade (1, p. 79).
- 1913 April: Dickerson promoted to Associate Curator of Herpetology (2, 1913 p.
- 1920 February 2: Herpetology is officially separated from Ichthyology, and the
Department of Herpetology is formalized with Dickerson as Curator (2,
1920 p. 36).
- 1920 November: Dickerson is forced to resign from the museum, suffering with mental
ill health (1, p. 15). She is replaced by Gladwyn Kingsley Noble as
Assistant Curator in Charge from the beginning of 1921 (2, 1920 p. 8).
As head of the department, Noble continues Dickerson’s work in
exhibition development and collection expansion (1, p. 34).
- 1922: The museum introduces department ‘divisions’, with the Department of
Herpetology under the Division of Zoology and Zoogeography (2, 1922 p.
- 1922: Work begins on the new Hall of Reptiles and Amphibians (2, 1922 p.
- 1924: Noble promoted to Curator of the Department of Herpetology (2, 1924
- 1924 - 1940: Herpetological collections more than double during Noble’s
curatorship, from 50,000 specimens to 110,000 (3).
- 1927 June: The Hall of Reptile and Amphibian Life opens in the museum’s East
Wing, displaying both Dickerson’s earlier habitat groups and exhibits
created under Noble’s direction (1, p. 86).
- 1928 May: The department’s name is changed to the Department of Herpetology and
Experimental Biology, reflecting Noble’s significant interest and work
in laboratory-based experimental projects (1, p. 35).
- 1930: The museum abandons the use of ‘divisions’, and the Department of
Herpetology and Experimental Biology retains its name as an independent
department (2, 1930 p. 195).
- 1934 January 8: The Department of Herpetology and Experimental Biology is separated
into two departments: the Department of Experimental Biology and the
Department of Herpetology (2, 1933 p. 55). Noble serves as Curator of
both departments (1, p. 39).
- 1935: Live animal exhibits start to be incorporated into the Hall of
Reptile and Amphibian Life. This is a frequent exhibition practice in
the hall throughout the late 1930s and early 1940s (1, p. 87).
- 1937: A display of reptiles and amphibians found in the New York City area
is installed in the first floor of the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial
Building (2, 1937 p. 14).
- 1938: A new exhibit of live reptiles opens in the foyer of the museum’s
subway entrance (2, 1938 p. 9).
- 1941: Charles M. Bogert is promoted to Assistant Curator (In Charge) of the
Department of Herpetology, following Noble’s unexpected death in 1940
(2, 1941 p. 46). During the years under Bogert’s curatorial direction,
the herpetological collection grows by 67%, from 110,000 specimens in
1940 to 184,000 cataloged specimens in 1969 (1, p. 59).
- 1942: Museum Director Albert Parr dissolves the Department of Vertebrate
Paleontology, and the Department of Herpetology is changed to the
Department of Amphibians and Reptiles, encompassing both living and
extinct species. Edwin H. Colbert is appointed Chairman and Acting
Curator of Fossil Reptiles, and Bogert is appointed Acting Curator of
Recent Amphibians and Reptiles (and Curator by 1943) (2, p.
- 1944: The fossil herpetological collection is again parted from the
Department of Amphibians and Reptiles, with vertebrate paleontology
included in the new Department of Geology and Paleontology (1, p. 58).
The Department of Amphibians and Reptiles retains its name, parted from
paleontology (1, p. 215). Bogert is appointed Chairman and Curator of
the department (2, 1944 p. 64).
- 1959: The Department of Amphibians and Reptiles returns to the name
Department of Herpetology, with Bogert as Chairman and Curator (1, p.
- 1968: Bogert resigns as Chairman of the Department of Herpetology in June,
and retires in December (1, p. 59). Richard George Zweifel replaces
Bogert as Chairman of the Department (2, 1968 p. 20).
- 1968: The Hall of Reptile and Amphibian Life closes (1, p. 61).
- 1970: Intensive work begins on the new Hall of the Biology of Reptiles and
Amphibians (1, p. 61). The new hall aims to integrate amphibian and
reptile displays with explanations of related biological principles (1,
- 1980 July 1: Charles W. Myers replaces Zweifel as Chairman of the Department of
Herpetology (1, p. 61).
- 1987: Ichthyology and Herpetology are once again combined into the
Department of Herpetology and Ichthyology (2, 1987-1988 p. 23). Gareth
J. Nelson is appointed Chairman, and Zweifel, Myers and Charles J. Cole
as Curators (2, 1987-1988 p. 82).
- 1993 July 1: Myers replaces Nelson as Chairman of the Department of Herpetology
and Ichthyology (1, p. 62).
- 1997 July 1: Herpetology is again separated from Ichthyology and the name
Department of Herpetology re-adopted. Myers continues to serve as
Chairman (1, p. 62).
- 1977 November 18: The Hall of the Biology of Reptiles and Amphibians opens (1, p. 93).
- 1999 January: Myers retires as Chairman (1, p. 62). The position is filled
temporarily by Darrel R. Frost as Acting Chairman (2, 1998-1999 p.
- 2000: The museum reintroduces ‘divisions’, and the Department of
Herpetology is incorporated into the Division of Vertebrate Zoology (2,
2000 p. 75). Cole is temporarily appointed Curator-in-Charge (2, 2000 p.
The Department of Herpetology is part of the American Museum of Natural
History, located in New York.