By Leah Aronowsky, Graduate Student, Harvard History of Science Program
Last month I told you about the fish illustrations of the US Exploring Expedition (1838-42) and their multiple roles as field notes, ethnographic accounts of the expedition, and artifacts of draftsman Joseph Drayton’s artistic process. There is an addendum to the story of these illustrations that I’d like to share with you today. While working with these illustrations, I noticed that each drawing, regardless of which artist had produced it, had been assigned a taxonomic name and figure number, as if in preparation for inclusion in a publication. I initially assumed that these figure number assignments had been made by Louis Agassiz, the Harvard ichthyologist who had been commissioned in the 1850s by Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian Spencer Baird to write the official ichthyology report of the Exploring Expedition. When I consulted his manuscript (SIA RU007186), however, I found that the names and figure numbers on the illustrations did not correspond to those of the report.
Who made these mystery taxonomic assignments, and why?
After some sleuthing, I believe I’ve found the answer. In the course of my research I learned that, in the 1920s, Assistant Curator of Fishes at the US National Museum, Barton Bean, asked ichthyologist Henry Weed Fowler to examine and identify the fish collected during the US Exploring Expedition. Barton was evidently frustrated that the contents of the Exploring Expedition fish collection had never been made public, and hoped that Fowler’s report would remedy this. Fowler accepted the job and conducted his taxonomic work from his office at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, where he worked as a Curator of Fishes. Using the manuscript report Fowler submitted to the Smithsonian (RU 7180), I compared the taxonomic names and figure numbers written on the illustrations with those listed in Fowler’s manuscript and found that, in each case, the two aligned!
Evidently, Fowler intended to include the original illustrations in his final report. Unfortunately, for reasons unknown, Fowler’s manuscript was also never published (although the American Philosophical Society published an abridged version of his report in 1940.) 1 Nevertheless, this manuscript is notable for those interested in field books, as it demonstrates the crucial role the illustrations-as-field-notes played for Fowler as he sought to identify each specimen. As Fowler noted, many of the preserved specimens that were collected during the expedition had deteriorated over time, with “broken bodies, abraded or worn fins, [and] fallen scales.” 2 Additionally, over the years, some of the labels accompanying the specimens had become lost or mixed up. Fowler thus relied heavily on the illustrations to reorganize and identify the fishes of the collection.
Indeed, in his manuscript, Fowler seamlessly juxtaposed descriptions of the preserved Exploring Expedition specimens with data gleaned from the illustrations to identify the fishes. Drayton’s color illustrations and detailed descriptions of color and texture gradations became especially relevant to Fowler’s work, and allowed him to describe a species even if the physical specimen had been lost.
Fowler’s manuscript demonstrates the invaluable role that detailed field notes can play for researchers—even decades after an expedition has ended!
1 Fowler, Henry, "The Fishes obtained by the Wilkes Expedition, 1838-1842." Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 82 (1940): 733-800
2 Fowler, Henry, The Fishes Obtained by the United States Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842 Under the Command of Captain Charles Wilkes (unpublished), RU 7180, Box 1, Folder 1, Smithsonian Institution Archives.