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Whitney South Sea Expedition of the American Museum of Natural History Collection

Identifier: Archives Orn60

Scope and Contents

This collection contains bound volumes, notes, correspondence, photographs, log books and journals. The material has been arranged into three series. The collection is largely comprised of thirty-three Bound Volumes (Series I) that contain letters and journal entries written by the field researchers that participated in the Whitney South Sea Expedition. Many of these bound volumes store additional material including hand-drawn maps, specimen sketches, photographs and a few handwritten letters, mainly consisting of official correspondence between the field and the coordinators at AMNH. These volumes were transcribed and edited at AMNH from original handwritten journals and letters, and are arranged by author and bound between 1985-1990. While much of the original source material is unavailable, the collection does include both primary and secondary Supplementary Material (Series II) housed in eighteen archival boxes, and are organized by WSSE field member name. This material includes typed duplicates of many of the journals and manuscripts, along with some original journals and specimen lists. It also contains a great portion of correspondence between field researchers and AMNH staff, much of which is duplicated in the bound volumes. Main topics are voyage logistics, budgets and payments for the field research, and inquiries about new or established departmental team members. This series also has assorted newspaper clippings, magazine articles and obituaries, as well as the log books of The France, the expedition’s schooner. Over 200 Photographs (Series III) in the collection depict specimens, landscapes, WSSE participants, and the local people and customs, and are housed in two archival boxes as well as being found throughout the bound volumes and supplemental material. Please note that many additional images relating to the Expedition and participants can be found in the AMNH Research Library Special Collections Photographic Print Collection files. Further descriptions of the collection can be found in the Series Description sections of the Container list in this finding aid.


  • 1920-2007


Language of Material

Some material is in French.

Conditions Governing Access

This collection is housed in the Department of Ornithology. Please contact the collection manager for access; materials are sometimes restricted.

Historical note

The AMNH Whitney South Sea Expedition was 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. At the time it was the largest ornithological expedition ever conceived. Active field research was conducted from 1920 to 1941. In addition to bird specimens, botanical and anthropological specimens were also gathered and participants photographed their regions of exploration, drew maps and kept detailed diaries and notes on their voyages. The participants included collectors and scientists from a broad variety of fields including botany and ornithology. There were dozens of participants throughout the two decade expedition. Rollo Beck originated the role of leader and remained for eight years before retiring. A key member was Ernst Mayr, a world renowned evolutionary biologist who is often cited as “the Darwin of the 20th Century.” Mayr cited his time in the South Pacific as deeply influential to his interest and pursuit of evolutionary study. After leaving field research, Mayr continued to coordinate WSSE from New York as the curator of the Rothschild Collection of Birds at AMNH. Many of the participant’s wives were an important part of the Expedition, including Ida Beck, Virginia Correia and Joy Macmillan. Some of the journal entries in the Macmillan material were written by Joy. These women acted as liaisons, interacting with the local indigenous people and also were integral to collecting activities including the skinning of specimens. In 1922, the team purchased the schooner The France which served as their vessel for over a decade, and the captain and crews of The France and subsequent vessels also played a vital role in the success of the expedition. Exploration of the South Pacific islands required the field members to obtain permission from and required cooperation with each island’s governing body. Besides bureaucratic delays, the team faced a rough campaign full of constant illness, intense physical exertion and danger, as well as months of isolation. The expedition was interrupted by World War II but exploration soon resumed, with the final leader of WSSE, G. Reid Henry, conducting field research from 1940 – 1941. The Expedition was hugely responsible for adding to the AMNH Ornithological collection. Among the many important specimens collecting during the WSSE, was the rediscovery of the lost species Procellaria munda (as named by Heinrich Kuhl). The bird had first been recorded on February 15, 1769 during Captain James Cook’s 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 until Beck spotted the bird in 1926. Many of the birds collected during the Expedition were showcased in the former AMNH Whitney Hall of Oceanic Birds, which was also financially supported by Whitney and completed after his death with sponsorship by his widow and descendants. The Hall opened in 1939, was dedicated in 1953 and closed in the 1990s.

Biographical Sketches

Beck, Rollo Howard, 1870-1950. Beck was the leader of field research for WSSE. 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. He had traveled on the AMNH Brewster-Sanford Expedition (1912-1917) before joining WSSE. He acted as expedition leader for all eight years that he was a member of WSSE.

Bryan, E. H. (Edwin Horace), 1898-1985. Bryan was an American naturalist who was affiliated with the Bishop Museum for most of his life. The Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum, located in Honolulu, Hawaii, has a central focus on the Hawaiian and surrounding Pacific Island cultures. AMNH had agreed not to collect any bird specimens from Hawaii during the WSSE expedition, and instead exchanged specimens with the Bishop Museum. Bryan joined WSSE in 1924 for 10 months as a representative of the Bishop. He was informed to not focus on collecting birds but rather on plant, insect and anthropological specimens. Bryan kept meticulous diaries while visiting over fifty islands with WSSE. His journals are housed in the Bishop Museum archives.

Chapman, Frank M. (Frank Michler), 1864-1945. Chapman, an ornithologist, was Curator of Birds at AMNH for part of WSSE. He corresponded with and acted as a coordinator to the field researchers of WSSE.

Correia, José G., 1881-1954. Correia was a bird collector for numerous AMNH expeditions. On his trip to with WSSE, Correia acted as team leader for six months in 1923 while the established leader, Rollo Beck, met with the AMNH counsel in New York. Correia and his wife, Virginia, traveled with WSSE for four years, working through the Samoan, Fijian and Tongan Archipelagos.

Coultas, William F. Coultas acted as leader of the Whitney South Sea Expedition from April 1925 to October 1935. Coultas traveled to the Solomon Islands, Carolines, Mariannes, Guam and the Bismark Archipelago while with WSSE. Coultas and his friend Walter Eyerdam initially approached Robert Cushman Murphy, curator of birds at AMNH, about funding for an expedition to East Siberia. Murphy instead suggested WSSE with both men in the roles of collectors. Although their duties were the same, Coultas was appointed leader.

Hamlin, Hannibal, 1904-1982. Hannibal Hamlin was an American neurosurgeon who traveled with the Whitney South Sea Expedition beginning in 1927. After original leader Rollo Beck retired, Hamlin was appointed leader of the expedition from March 1928 until January 1930. He left the project in August 1930.

Henry, G. Reid. G. Reid Henry was the final leader of WSSE. After WSSE was placed on a brief hiatus due to World War II, Henry continued field research for less than a year in 1941 until the expedition was officially closed.

Macmillan, Lindsay. Macmillan led the Whitney South Sea Expedition from 1935 to 1940. Macmillan’s wife, Joy, accompanied him on the expedition, acting as an assistant. Lindsay was trained by A.J. Campbell, a well-known Australian ornithologist. Before joining WSSE, Macmillan was already well-versed in skinning and collection bird specimens. He left WSSE to join the Australian military during World War II.

Mayr, Ernst, 1904-2005. Mayr was a world renowned evolutionary biologist, naturalist and ornithologist, often cited as “the Darwin of the 20th century.” Mayr worked on the WSSE from 1929-1930 as a collector and field researcher. While on the expedition Mayr collected more than 3,000 bird specimens. Mayr cited his time in the South Pacific as deeply influential to his interest and pursuit of evolutionary study. After returning from WSSE, Mayr worked as a research associate at AMNH in 1931. From 1932 to 1944 Mayr was an associate curator in the AMNH ornithology department. Part of his duties were to manage WSSE from New York. Mayr was the curator of the Rothschild Collection of Birds from 1944 to 1953. In 1942 Mayr published his landmark book on evolutionary biology, Systematics and the Origin of Species.

Murphy, Robert Cushman, 1887-1973. Robert Cushman Murphy was the one of the leading ornithologists of the twentieth century. He served as curator of birds at AMNH from 1926-1942 and later chair of the department from 1942-1949. From 1949-1955 Murphy was Lamont curator of birds at AMNH. He published hundreds of books and articles throughout his career. Of note is Oceanic Birds of South America, published in 1936. Murphy was the museum coordinator for WSSE participants in the field.

Sanford, Leonard Cutler, 1869-1950. Sanford was a surgeon by trade but spent much of his time as a patron of ornithology. Sanford initiated the Brewster-Sanford Expedition to South America (sponsored by Frederick F. Brewster). The ornithological expedition was conducted from 1912-1917 and was led by Rollo Beck. Sanford was a trustee of AMNH from 1921-1950. He was responsible for involving Harry Payne Whitney with AMNH and convincing him to fund the ornithological expedition that became WSSE.

Whitney, Harry Payne, 1872-1930. Whitney was the sponsor of the Whitney South Sea Expedition. The idea was proposed to him by friend Leonard C. Sanford. Upon Whitney’s death in 1930, his widow Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney continued funding the expedition through the Whitney Fund. The Whitney family and the city of New York funded the construction of the AMNH Whitney Wing, which opened in 1935. The building was dedicated to the museum’s ornithology department.


32 Volumes (4.5 linear feet) : illustrations ; 27 cm

9.5 Linear Feet (20 boxes)

Whitney South Sea Expedition of the American Museum of Natural History Collection, 1920-2007
Cara Shatzman
August 2013
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Describing Archives: A Content Standard
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The Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation provided support to make this finding aid available in ArchivesSpace (2016-2017).

Repository Details

Part of the Department of Ornithology Archives Repository

Division of Vertebrate Zoology
Department of Ornithology
200 Central Park West
New York NY 10024-5192 US