Chapin, James Paul, 1889-1964

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1889 - 1964

Biographical or Historical Note

James Paul Chapin (1889-1964) was a noted Ornithologist and former Curator at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. At the age of 19 he took the role of assistant to the American Museum Congo Expedition (1909-1915). This began his life-long association with that region and established his place as an expert on the birds of the Congo. A graduate of Columbia University, Chapin worked at the Museum from 1905 until his official retirement in 1948, after which he took the role of research associate in African Ornithology and curator emeritus until his death.

Born in New York City on July 9, 1889, Chapin was the son of Gilbert Granger and Nano (Eagle) Chapin. By the age of three his family had moved to Staten Island, where he would spend much of his life and continue to maintain strong ties.(1) From an early age he showed a keen interest in natural science and the outdoors, which was encouraged by his mother. (2) His high school principal introduced him to the work of noted ornithologist Frank Chapman. (3) As a teenager he became a member of the Natural Science Association of Staten Island, and was influenced by William T. Davis, author of Days Afield on Staten Island. Chapin became a regular contributor of short notes to the monthly journals of that Association and the Staten Island Association of Arts and Science, and read his first scientific paper in 1905 on the behavior of a captive jumping mouse. (4)

After graduating high school at 16, Chapin had gained acceptance to Columbia University but felt too young to begin College. Davis helped him acquire a position at the American Museum of Natural History, mounting birds under Alfred Klein. (5) He would remain at the museum for 43 years. In fact, as Chapin wrote in a 1937 staff biography form, he was “First employed by American Museum at the age of 16. [He] hopes to work hard for the Museum as long as he lives.” (6) A year later he began studies at Columbia University as a Biological Sciences major. But by 1908 the American Museum of Natural History was organizing an expedition to the Belgian Congo (formerly Congo Free State) and had selected German taxidermist and mammalogist Herbert Lang as leader. Lang specifically recommended Chapin accompany as his assistant. Putting Columbia University on hold, nineteen-year-old Chapin willingly took this opportunity. He acted as assistant for all stages of the Expedition, actively collecting and taking field notes, including extensive watercolor drawings. The Expedition was originally planned for two years, but lasted six.

As one of only two expedition members, Chapin gained extensive and remote field work experience. The team ultimately returned with over 22,000 vertebrate and 110,000 invertebrate specimens, 3800 ethnographic objects and more than 9500 photographs to supplement the Museum’s African collection. The extensive field and collection notes created by both Lang and Chapin added great scientific value to the material. The research data would provide the basis for Chapin’s four-volume Birds of the Congo. Further, his experiences would ignite his passion for African birds, leading him to become a world expert on African Ornithology. Chapin is credited with the discovery of the Congo peacock. In Avakubi in 1913, he saw and collected an unidentifiable feather in a headdress. Twenty-three years later, in a storage space of the Belgian Tervueren Museum in 1936, he recognized the same feather on mounted specimens. He realized this was not a traditional peacock as had been thought but an unidentified species. (7)

After returning to New York with the first shipment of material in 1915, Chapin took a role as assistant to the Ornithology department at the American Museum of Natural History while returning to his academic studies at Columbia. He earned his Bachelor’s degree in 1916 and his Master’s Degree the following year. Fluent in French, Chapin served as a billeted officer of the United States Army in France from 1917 to 1919. Afterwards he returned to New York to the Museum and to work toward his Doctorate. He achieved his PhD in Field Ornithology from Columbia in 1932. (8) At the Museum, Chapin acted as Assistant Curator from 1920 to 1923. In 1923 he achieved Associate Curator in the Department of Ornithology. Upon retirement in 1948, Chapin was honored as Curator Emeritus of Birds and Research Associate in African Ornithology yet maintained a vigorous research and education schedule.

Chapin devoted the bulk of his research to the Congo, making five additional expeditions to that region. Three journeys were taken as expedition leader for the American Museum of Natural History, one trip was for the US Government, and lastly in 1953 the Scientific Research Institute for Central Africa sponsored a five-year sojourn for Chapin and his wife (and fellow ornithologist), Ruth Trimble Chapin to conduct research and train other scientists in the field of ornithological investigation. He also took part in other expeditionary work to places as diverse as the Canadian Rockies, Panama, the Galapagos Islands and to Polynesia with Templeton Crocker on his yacht Zaca.

He was awarded the Order of the Crown by Belgium’s King Albert in 1931, the Elliot Medal of the National Academy of Sciences in 1922, named Officier de l’etoile Africain in 1956, represented the United States at the International Ornithological Congress in Rouen, France, acted as president of Staten Island Institute of Arts and Sciences, Explorers Club of New York, American Ornithologists Union and was member of countless scientific organizations.

Chapin’s first marriage was to Suzanne Drouel in 1921. They had four children: Mary Louise (Drenner), Pauline Thomas, Suzanne Caroline, who died, and James Drouel. Chapin and Drouel divorced in 1939 and in September of 1940, Chapin married Ruth Trimble, a former assistant curator of birds at the Carnegie Museum and cataloger at the American Museum of Natural History library. After a period of ill health, Chapin died of a coronary thrombosis on April 5, 1964 at his home on W. 119th Street in New York City. Chapin had many friends and was an avid correspondent, often including drawings and sketches on envelopes. (9) At the time of his death, Department of Ornithology chairman and curator Dean Amadon would describe his legacy: “He was the best-loved and at the same time one of the most scholarly of American naturalists. He had thousands of friends.”(10)


    (1) Chapin, James Paul, as told to Thomas Gilliard in 1960, "Pictures from an Expedition," Natural History, (November 1990): 18.
    (2) D.R. Barton, "Chapin of the Congo," Natural History, 46, no. 2 (1940): 123.
    (3) Chapin, 18.
    (4) Herbert Friedmann, "In Memoriam: James Paul Chapin," The Auk 83, no. 2 (1966): 241.
    (5) Chapin, 20.
    (6) James Paul Chapin, "Yearly data required for staff biographies" Jan, 23, 1937.
    (7) James P. Chapin, "In pursuit of the Congo Peacock," Natural History 40, no. 5 (1937): 725-732, 777-778
    (8) Friedmann, 245-246.
    (9) Friedmann, 247.
    (10) James P. Chapin, Ornithologist, New York Herald Tribune Obituary. April 1964


  • 1889 - 1964: New YorkExternal link Chapin was born and worked in New York City at the American Museum of Natural History.
  • 1889: James Paul Chapin is born in New York.
  • 1905: Chapin begins work at the American Museum of Natural History.
  • 1906: Begins studies at Columbia University.
  • 1909 - 1958: Congo (general region)External link (Expedition Site) Chapin made multiple research expeditions to the Congo region of Africa, including the American Museum Congo Expedition (1909-1915).
  • 1909 - 1915: American Museum Congo Expedition.
  • 1916: received Bachelor's degree (Columbia)
  • 1917: received Master's degree (Columbia)
  • 1917 - 1919: served in U.S. Army
  • 1932: received Doctorate in Ornithological Field Work (Columbia)
  • 1948: official retirement from the AMNH
  • 1953 - 1958: Belgian sponsored stay in the eastern Congo.
  • April 07, 1964: Death


affiliated person
New YorkExternal link
dates: 1889-1964

Chapin was born and worked in New York City at the American Museum of Natural History.
Staten IslandExternal link
Chapin spent much of his childhood on Staten Island and kept ties with the area throughout his life.
Congo (general region)External link
(Expedition Site)

dates: 1909-1958

Chapin made multiple research expeditions to the Congo region of Africa, including the American Museum Congo Expedition (1909-1915).

Related Corporate, Personal, and Family Names

American Museum Congo Expedition
associated dates: 1909-1915

Chapin was assistant to Herbert Lang on the Congo Expedition.
American Museum of Natural History
associated dates: 1905-1964

Chapin was employed by the Museum for 43 years and maintained an association with it throuhout his lifetime.
Belgian Institut pour la Recherche Scientifique en Afrique Centrale
associated dates: 1953-1958

Chapin and his wife Ruth Trimble spent five years in the Congo working on behalf of the Institute.
Chapin African Expedition
Chapin was leader of this expedition. Looking for peacock
Chapin Expedition to Africa
Chapin was leader of this expedition.
Chapin, Gilbert Granger (1851-1909)
associated dates: 1889-1909

Chapin, Henry E.
associated dates: 1889-

Chapin, James Drouel (1925-)
associated dates: 1925-1964

Chapin, Nano Eagle (1860-1930)
associated dates: 1889-1930

Chapin, Pauline Thomas (1926-)
associated dates: 1926-1964

Chapin, Ruth Trimble
associated dates: 1940-1964

Trimble was Chapin's second wife.
Chapin, Suzanne Caroline (1923-1932)
associated dates: 1923-1932

Chapin-Edson Congo Expedition
associated dates: 1930-1931

Chapin was leader of this expedition.
Chapman, Frank M. (Michler) (1864-1945)
associated dates: 1905-1945

Ornithologist, curator at AMNH
Cleaves, Howard H.
Childhood Staten Island friend of Chapin and wildlife photographer.
Columbia UniversityExternal link
associated dates: 1906-1932

Chapin received all his degrees from Columbia University.
Davis, William T. (1862-1945)
Naturalist and founder of the Staten Island Institute of Arts and Sciences. He was a large influence on the formative Chapin.
Drenner, Mary Louise (1922-)
associated dates: 1922-1964

Drouel, Suzanne (1895-)
associated dates: 1921-1939

Drouel was Chapin's first wife
Galapagos Islands Expedition
Chapin was ornithologist on this expedition.
Kingsley, Mrs. Charles
associated dates: 1889-

Lang, Herbert
associated dates: 1905-1957

Taxidermist and mammalogist, leader of the American Museum Congo Expedition.
Ruwenzori-Kivu Expedition (Chapin-Sage)
associated dates: 1926-1927

Chapin was leader of the expedition.
Schoutden, Dr. H.
Associate at Tervueren that assisted Chapin tremendously with his research.
Skinner, Alanson (1886-1925)
Childhood Staten Island friend of Chapin, associated with the Museum of the American Indian and one-time Assistant Curator at AMNH.
Templeton-Crocker Pacific Expedition
associated dates: 1934-1935

Chapin was leader of this expedition.
Tervueren MuseumExternal link
associated dates: 1909-1964

Chapin collaborated with this Museum on many occasions.

Related Resources

James P. Chapin collection
associated dates: 1918-1964

Creator: James Paul Chapin Extent: 263 field notebooks and diaries, as well as much additional archival material. Repository: AMNH Ornithology Department Archives, Call no. Orn 221.
James Paul Chapin Papers
associated dates: 1900-1960

Creator: James Paul Chapin Extent: 19 boxes, (22 cubic feet) Repository: The Staten Island Museum, Archives and Library,
Correspondence, 1953
Creator: James Paul Chapin Extent: 48 iems (0.25 linear feet) Repository: AMNH Special Collections, Call no. Mss .C4537 1953.
The Congo Peacock Expedition [videorecording.]
Creator: James Paul Chapin, American Museum of Natural History Extent: 1 videocassette (34 min.) : si., col. ; 3/4 in. Repository: AMNH Special Collections, Film Collection no. 157
American Museum Congo Expedition 1909-1915 [electronic resource].
associated dates: 2002-

Creator: American Museum of Natural History Extent: electronic resource Location: Note: Website created by the American Museum of Natural History about the American Museum Congo Expedition, has biographical information about Chapin and digital access to field notebooks, diaries and sketches.

Written by: Kendra Meyer
Last modified: 2019 August 7


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