By Julia Blase, Field Book Project Manager
|Seal on the Palmer Peninsula, Antarctica, c. 1962. SIA RU007231, Box 139, "Palmer Peninsula Survey, 1962-1963". Taken during underwater specimen collecting during Waldo Schmitt's work on the Palmer Peninsula, 1962-1963. SIA2012-0670.|
The holidays are here and the weather has turned cold at last. Welcome, winter – and in a timely fashion, the Field Book Project has just encountered a few items from Smithsonian expeditions to the world’s cold and snowy polar regions!
Recently, the Field Book Project digitized a volume written by John Murdoch, a naturalist, anthropologist, and the Librarian of the Smithsonian Institution from 1887 to 1892. It documents his time as part of the U.S. Army Signal Corps International Polar Expedition to Point Barrow, Alaska, from 1881-1883 – the northernmost point of that state and the United States. The Expedition was part of the first International Polar Year, a series of coordinated, international expeditions to the Polar Regions primarily to collect and study geophysical and meteorological data. Murdoch worked primarily as a naturalist for the expedition but also had an interest in anthropology which led him to interact extensively with the local Inupiat people and collect many natural and cultural specimens and objects. His observations were recorded and eventually made available as part of the volume “Ethnological results of the Point Barrow expedition,” published by the GPO in 1892. According to one review of its reprint on Amazon, “for anyone who needs to identify artifacts, whether archaeological or ethnographic, from this general region, this is the best resource there is besides an Elder. In fact, Murdoch has illustrations of things that some Elders of today have never seen in use.” The field books digitized, titled by the author “Catalog of birds” and “Record of collections made,” were lovely and thorough, often including nomenclature in the native language as well as the English translation, and pointed me in the direction of further research into the International Polar Year that inspired the Expedition!
The first International Polar Year grew out of a proposal by Carl Weyprecht (1838-1881), an explorer with an interest in geography and meteorology particularly in the Polar Regions. He wished to establish cooperative international data-gathering efforts across several coordinated Polar stations and with the same equipment and goals in order for data collected to be effectively compiled, compared, analyzed, and utilized. After debates, delays, and amendments, and after its author’s death from tuberculosis, Weyprecht’s proposal (first presented during the second International Meteorological Congress in 1879) was accepted at the third meeting of the Polar Commission in August 1881.
Cover of Murdoch's "Record of collections made by the Point Barrow Polar Expedition, 1881-1883." Smithsonian Institution Archives. RU007203.
Eight stations supported by seven nations were certain from the beginning: Point Barrow and Lady Franklin Bay/Fort Conger (United States), Godthaab/West-Greenland (Denmark), Jan Mayen (Austria), Mosselbay/Spitsbergen (Sweden), Bossekop near Alten/Finmark (Norway), Sagastyr/The Mouth of the Lena (Russia), and Dickson/Siberia (The Netherlands). Twelve Arctic stations ended up being established, with one additional station each for the United States (Fort Rae/Great Slave Lake), Russia (N. Zemlya), and the Netherlands (Kara Sea), and two more from newly participating countries, Germany with a station at Kinguafjord and Finland with a station at Sodankylä. )
Though it is not clear exactly why John Murdoch began to collect ethnographic items on an expedition commissioned for geophysical and meteorological data, it was likely a combination of his own interests and the interests of then-Secretary Spencer Baird, who was eager to expand the museum’s collections. Nonetheless, Murdoch’s collections and subsequent report have continued to be some of the more valuable results of the Point Barrow Expedition for current researchers.
I’d like to pause and add that I owe much of the history mentioned above to an excellent 2004 report by Cornelia Luedecke, titled The First International Polar Year (1882-83): A big science experiment with small science equipment,” which can be found online at this link. Additional information was found in Smithsonian Contributions to Alaskan Ethnography: The First IPY Expedition to Barrow, 1881– 1883, by Ernest S. Burch Jr., which may be found on page 89 of the proceedings volume of “Smithsonian at the Poles” symposium from May 2007, at this link. For further observations on the nature of Murdoch’s collecting, the Catalogue raisonné of the Alaska Commercial Company Collection, Phoebe Apperson Hearst Museum of Anthropology is also interesting, as it notes the interactions between the Company and several of the Smithsonian staff involved, including Secretary Baird. The text for that item may be found on this page, and the catalog record for the item at the Smithsonian may be found here. For further information on the first International Polar Year, the NOAA website on the topic is also informative. Please click through and read if you would like more information!
And now…what about the Antarctic?
In Weyprecht’s original proposal, Antarctic research stations were recommended, and two were established, at Cape Horn (by France) and South Georgia (by Germany). Unfortunately, there weren’t any Smithsonian scientists at those stations! However, I looked through our records and found a Smithsonian expedition to the Antarctic from about eighty years later, the Palmer Peninsula Survey, U.S. Antarctic Research Program, 1962-1963, where Smithsonian staff were sent to take part in the Department of Defense work in sites across Antarctica as part of the U.S. exchange representative program. The records we have from this survey come from the papers of Waldo Schmitt, Curator of the Division of Marine Invertebrates and later Head Curator of the Department of Biology and later Zoology (when the departments were split in 1947), a zoologist by training whose specialty was decapod crustaceans.
As it turns out, the base for the survey was McMurdo Station (also see the National Science Foundation website on McMurdo Station and this image, from the Field Book Project blog). McMurdo Station was also the center of scientific and logistical operations for many expeditions during the first International Geophysical Year (July 1, 1957, to Dec. 31, 1958), an event in turn inspired by the success of the International Polar Year, which by that point had already been repeated once (1932-1933) and was in fact repeated again in 2007-2008, due to the success of previous efforts (see the Senate Resolution for the 2007-2008 year at this link). It’s a small world, indeed!
The Survey operated in and around multiple Antarctic Sites, including Marguerite Bay, Dorian Bay, Discovery Bay, Admiralty Bay, Wilhelmina Bay, Paradise Harbor, the Weddell Sea, the Argentine Islands, the Melchior Islands, Danco-Couverville Island, Alcock Island, and Deception Island, all in the area of the Palmer Peninsula and South Shetland Islands. Though the Field Book Project does not have many items from Waldo Schmitt digitized (yet), from our cataloging efforts we know that the Survey covered observations on marine invertebrates and vertebrates, geography, botany, and entomology – a comprehensive trip that even included observations on whaling and ‘flensing’ a whale, an activity I also vividly remember reading about in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick!
Schmitt had a long and distinguished career at the Smithsonian, leaving us with thousands of specimens for study (29,000 from the Palmer Peninsula Survey alone) and over 200 field books documenting his work in areas as diverse as the Bahamas, Galapagos, the east and west coasts of South America, Alaska, and the Antarctic. His Palmer Peninsula work was so comprehensive that, in recognition of his contributions, the Board of Geographic Names designated a series of outcrops at the base of the Antarctic Peninsula “Schmitt Mesa.”
SIA RU007231, Box 140, taken during Waldo Schmitt's collecting during the Palmer Peninsula Survey 1962-1963. Penguins on the Palmer Peninsula, 10-11am January 28, 1963. SIA 2012-0663.
Though Schmitt’s Palmer Peninsula field books are not completely digitized, we do have a selection of excellent photographs from him on the Project’s Flickr page, and the catalog records of his field books can be found in the Smithsonian Collections Search Center. The Field Book Project blog has featured his photographs before, as well as an overview of his extensive travels; the Smithsonian Archives has an excellent collection-level record detailing more of his biographical information; the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, Department of Invertebrate Zoology has an even more extensive obituary available here celebrating Schmitt’s many accomplishments, and none of those sources even approach his official biography by Richard Blackwelder titled “The Zest for Life, or, Waldo Had a Pretty Good Run: the Life of Waldo LaSalle Schmitt.”
The two expeditions highlighted in this post, Arctic and Antarctic, further call to mind the importance of historical research as well as historical records’ value to current research. The documentation of geographies, meteorology, and the flora and fauna of the Polar Regions is even more important now, as the Polar Regions are undergoing rapid change that may force their fragile ecosystems to alter drastically.
And outside of the joy we feel at being able to help the Smithsonian scientists through Field Book Project activities, there are other delights we get to experience, such as the places we get to travel just by reading field materials from coast to coast, continent to continent, and pole to pole. The Smithsonian’s passionate researchers will travel to the cold and snowy ends of the earth to complete the work that they love! Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanzaa, Mele Kalikimaka, Feliz Navidad, and all of those other wishes – happy holidays from the Field Book Project to you.