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John Treadwell Nichols papers

Identifier: Mss .N531-N532

Scope and Content note

The records consist mostly of the journals Nichols kept during his life. The journals record wildlife observed on his travels overseas, but the bulk of the entries are devoted to Nichols’ observations in Central Park, on the Museum grounds, and in his home at Long Island. His desk diaries consist of notes on sources and information collected for Nichols’ books, mostly his book on fresh-water fish from China. Generally, these entries have a line or two devoted to the duties and office procedures of the curator as well. Boxes 7 and 19, termed “Bibliography,” lists all of Nichols’ articles throughout his life, from his initial 1904 article in “Auk: The Quarterly Journal of Ornithology,” a publication that has run over 100 years and was honored in 2009 as one of the most influential journals of biology and medicine over the twentieth century, to the last article published months before his death on August 28, 1958 regarding the feeding habits and behavior of the gray squirrel. Box 19 also contains his professional correspondence with staff members within the Department of Herpetology as well as correspondence with David G. Nichols regarding the acquisition of Nichols’ materials and inventories of Nichols’ journals and turtles from the William Floyd Estate.

John T. Nichols journals were microfilmed and are held at the American Museum of Natural History; this collection contains photocopies of the microfilmed journals in addition to original desk diaries and journals, not all of which are reproduced from the microfilmed copies.

The collection is divided into the following four series: Series I, N531: Photocopied Journals Volumes 1-28 with Bibliography, 1904-1958 Series II, N532: Original Desk Diaries and Journals, 1893-1988, bulk 1893-1958 Series III, N532: Photocopied Journals, 1924-1958 Series IV, N532: Miscellaneous, 1908-1989, bulk 1910-1958


  • 1888-1989
  • Majority of material found within 1890-1958


Access and Restrictions note

Please contact Special Collections; materials are sometimes restricted.

Biographical 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 (full name necessary). 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 noted below. 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.


12.5 Linear Feet (25 boxes)

Language of Materials


Arrangement note

The collection was previously arranged and rehoused prior to the writing of this finding aid. No further arrangement was made, however some material was separated into folders.


The journals are fragile. The old newspaper clippings are disintegrating. Photographs and photocopies are in good condition.

Source of Acquisition note

Collection was transferred to the AMNH Research Library from the Department of Ichthyology, November 10, 1994.

Related Archival Materials note

“Papers.” Roy Chapman Andrews (1884-1960). Andrews’ personal collection contains some correspondence with Nichols regarding Museum affairs. This is kept in Special Collections, and it’s call numbers are Mss .A51-.A54. “Correspondence.” American Museum of Natural History Congo Expedition (1909-1915). Nichols’ advised on gathering and collecting samples, and there are a few letters sourced from the combined Herpetology and Ichythyology Department. These papers are kept in Special Collections under the call number Mss. C661. “Papers.” William King Gregory (1876-1970). This personal collection contains some correspondence between the two regarding the Ichythyology Department. The call number for these documents is Mss. G7441 in the Special Collections. “Papers.” Henry Fairfield Osborn (1857-1935). President of the Natural History Museum for over twenty-five years, Osborn corresponded with the various departments. Here, there are some memorandums regarding Museum policy and its collections. Osborn’s papers are maintained in the Special Collections under the call number Mss. O835.

Physical Description note

Mostly handwritten notes in old journals, photocopied notes, typed memos, and few photographs.

John Treadwell Nichols papers, 1888-1989 (bulk 1890-1958)
Erin Flynn
April 2012
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
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Language of description note
The Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation provided support to make this finding aid available in ArchivesSpace (2016-2017). Finding aid created with support from the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) Hidden Collections grant, 2010.

Repository Details

Part of the Museum Archives at the Gottesman Research Library Repository

American Museum of Natural History
200 Central Park West
New York NY 10024 USA
(212) 769-5420