By Lesley Parilla, Field Book Project
I recently cataloged a type of collection well outside the norm for me: the correspondence between a scientist, Oscar L. Cartwright (SIA RU007338), and a wide range of collectors who provided specimens for his department. These collectors were scientists and enthusiasts. I was excited when I realized a substantial portion of field work documentation was from amateur collectors. Citizen scientists have made important contributions to Smithsonian research over the decades, but the documentation has not appeared in high concentrations in the collections we’ve cataloged.
Cartwright was an entomologist at the US National Museum who specialized in Scarabidae. The portion of Cartwright’s collection that I cataloged is comprised of correspondence, organized alphabetically with individually designated folders for major correspondents.
Over the last two years, while cataloging field notes, I have come to recognize that often people who study natural sciences come to it through a relationship (e.g. spouse or sibling) or a love of the topic. It doesn’t seem to be a line of work that attracts people just interested in a pay check. Scientists whose work we document usually conduct research because it is a lifelong interest that often extends well past their retirement from paid employment. The correspondence in this collection is intriguing because it demonstrates how the study of natural sciences can be of such personal value to a wide range of people, not just those who pursue it as a career.
The correspondence includes letters from Margay Bos who accompanied her husband when he went to work in Casabe, Colombia. She initially collected butterflies and later looked to collect beetles at Cartwright’s request. She wrote to Cartwright about her field work.
[February 10, 1957] When the company cuts a path into the jungles in search of oil, we butterfly girls go in just as soon as the company is through and with knives, we keep these lanes clear for our hobby. Most of the people here (well, really all of them except we three) would be afraid for their lives to go even outside of the camp, much less, in the jungles! For me I dread to see the day come when I have to leave here!
Additionally, correspondence also documents mentoring of enthusiasts. Charles Griffin corresponded with Cartwright about his collecting in Texas. Over the course of Cartwright’s correspondence with the man, he shares about various aspects and methods for collecting insects including recording standards, field work dangers, and reference texts. Cartwright also offers a sounding board for the young man who not only seems increasingly fascinated with collecting but struggles with a job that leaves him unfulfilled. Below Griffin asks Cartwright about how to deal with rattlesnakes.
Would like to ask your opinion concerning an eternal and disturbing problem. In all of the areas where the neotoma are found, rattlesnakes abound. I almost stepped on one Sunday. It was on the other side of a limb across the path traveled, which I was about to step over. Had it not rattled, or done so a moment later, it would surely have had me. Have you collected in rattlesnake infested brush? If so, what precautions did you take?
The only thing I can tell you about rattlesnakes is to be extremely careful and to always carry a snake kit with you. In all of my collecting, I have seen probably no more than half a dozen live rattlesnakes. Same for the other poisonous snakes. In South Carolina, I once saw Professor Sherman step within six inches of a rattlesnake’s head and the snake didn’t move or rattle. But when I tried to catch it with a forked stick, moved to within 3 inches of its neck, it easily avoided the sudden thrust and began to rattle, ready to strike. I am not familiar with the habits of the diamondback, but would suspect them to be fast and quick to strike.
These letters document the collecting by housewives, businessmen, and career scientists. They demonstrate the dedication, challenges, and joys experienced by not just the people who pursue science as a career but also by those that do it for personal enjoyment. Additionally the letters show the time and energy scientists expend to encourage and mentor these individuals. This collection helps demonstrate the range of people and events that have contributed to the amazing natural history collections at the Smithsonian—from the expeditions to the individual collector.