By Greg PalumboSince joining the Field Book Project team to assist in the cataloging efforts, I have been primarily tasked with helping further develop the 100+ expedition records in the registry. I found myself researching and writing about expeditions taking place across the entire globe, and spanning two centuries. I began noticing that some of the Smithsonian’s most influential members were out in the field at the same time, but having vastly different experiences.
In 1940, two such expeditions set out to conduct work of a scientific nature. While taking place at the same time, and done in the name of science, these two expeditions were worlds apart. In fact, they were separated by over 7,500 miles!
The Smithsonian-Firestone Expedition to Liberia and the Alaska King Crab Expedition highlight two of the Smithsonian’s most noteworthy figures, Dr. Waldo L. Schmitt and William Mann. Each took the lead on their respective expedition, and their stories provide great insight into the range and reach of field work being done by members of the Institution.
Dr. Schmitt, Curator of the Division of Marine Invertebrates at the U.S. National Museum, was in the frigid waters of Alaska, where the average temperature is around 30° F during February and -- according to Schmitt --“warm when it reached 38°.” He was taking part in the Alaskan King Crab Expedition to study crab and the fishing industry in the vicinity of Aleutian Islands. The goal was to identify crab concentrations in the region, and fishing methods needed to create a self-sustaining U.S. King Crab industry.
Meanwhile, William Mann, Superintendent and Director of the National Zoological Park, was in the West African nation of Liberia. Mann was invited to the region and sought to collect live animals to add to the National Zoo’s collection. Pigmy hippos, several species of small antelopes, monkeys, rare birds, and reptiles were obtained by the expedition. Unlike Alaska, the average temperature most of the year is around 75° F in the capital city, Monrovia, and daily temps can reach well into the 90’s.
While Schmitt wandered his way around the Aleutian Islands in less than ideal conditions, the Mann’s set out on a personal safari through Western Africa. They stayed in resort like conditions at the private plantation of the Firestone Company in Harbel, and were treated like royals during their stay in Liberia.
Lucile Mann, who accompanied her husband on many of his collecting trips, wrote a very detailed account about their journey to Africa. Mrs. Mann’s journal from the expedition reads like a travel guide through Liberia, and aboard a ‘cruise’ ship that brought them from New York to the west coast of Africa: a day by day account of meals, living quarters, the local population’s activities, and the animals which she and her husband collected for the National Zoo. At one point saying, “This has been a day of parties.” The Manns were treated to “elaborate” meals and carried around the Liberian interior riding in hammocks instead of walking. Their trip received considerable press coverage and played out more like a social event rather than a scientific expedition.
On the opposite side of the globe, Waldo Schmitt was partaking in a not so similar type of outing. Calling parts of his Alaskan King Crab Expedition a “nightmare”, his diary from the trip presents an image of continuous rain and dreary days. He described conditions aboard his ship saying, “This was about the dirtiest, tracked-up, filthy vessel I ever set foot upon.” Far from the luxury afforded to the Mann’s, Schmitt’s expedition seemed the antithesis. On October 1st he wrote, “We had run dreadfully short of water Monday… There was scarcely enough yesterday for a bath out of a bucket – that’s how we wash, real old-fashioned sailor style, and washing clothes was out of the question.”
These two particular expeditions provide a fascinating glimpse of the field work being done by members of the Smithsonian Institution. While different in many ways, they both represent the unique experiences and groundbreaking scientific inquiries that have produced lasting documentation in the form of field books. While researching these two trips I couldn’t help but think about the incredible enthusiasm that both Waldo Schmitt and the Manns had for scientific discovery. These expeditions were neither their first nor last time out in the field, and even though they had very dissimilar journeys, I’m confident that they were ultimately delighted with the experience.