Chapman, Frank Michler

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(b. West Englewood. New Jersey, 12 June 1864; d. New York, New York. 15 November 1945)

ornithology, conservation.

Chapman was born into a gifted, well-to-do family. His father, Lebbens Chapman, was senior member of a New York law firm, and his mother, Mary Augusta Parkhurst, came from a family of physicians; both were of English descent. The family home was in the midst of a large and prosperous farm, in a region at that time abounding in woods, ponds, orchards, and wide fields. Endowed with his mother’s musical talent, Chapman was perhaps inevitably to become an ardent bird lover in these favorable surroundings. After graduating at age sixteen from the Englewood Academy, he chose not to go to college but to work as a bank clerk (his father having died four years earlier) and to pursue his nature studies as an amateur. Early in 1884 he took part as a volunteer in a survey of the spring bird migrations organized by the American Ornithologists’ Union and the United States Biological Survey. Despite the demands of his job, Chapman spent an average of two and a half hours in the field on each of sixtynine days of a seventy-five-day period (getting up at daybreak), A. K. Fisher, who was in charge of the project, declared Chapman’s report to be the best for eastern North America.

Two years later Chapman resigned from the bank to devote himself entirely to bird study. He assembled a fine collection of Florida birds, having learned in the meantime how to make bird skins, and started to work at the American Museum of Natural History as a volunteer. He impressed the curator of mammals and birds at the museum. J. A. Allen, so favorably that Allen offered him (1 March 1888) an assistantship at the princely salary of $50 a month. “[I had only] a beginner’s knowledge of local birds,” said Chapman later, “and had everything to learn concerning the more technical side of ornithology. There was no one under whom I could have worked and studied more profitably [than Dr. Allen].” By 1908 Chapman became curator, and when the department was divided in 1920, he became chairman of the bird department, where he remained until his retirement on 30 June 1942.

Chapman married Fannie Bates Embury on 24 February 1898. A widow with four children, she often assisted her husband on his expeditions. Together they had one son.

We have an excellent sketch of Chapman’s personality from R. C. Murphy (1950), but his character can also be sensed by reading between the lines in his autobiography. Versatility, enthusiasm, warmth, and intelligence were among his strengths. A weakness for people with money and titles, occasional aberrations of judgment, and an extraordinarily onesided anglophilia were among his foibles.

During the time he chaired the department. Chapman made it the best bird department in the world. Each of the curators he appointed became the leading world authority in his specialty: R. C. Murphy (sea birds), James P. Chapin (birds of Africa), John T. Zimmer (birds of South America), and Ernst Mayr (birds of Australia and the South Seas). Simultaneously Chapman built up the collection to the second largest in the world. His greatest acquisition was the Rothschild collection in 1932, with 280, 000 specimens.

Chapman entered enthusiastically into all aspects of a museum career. He completely revitalized the exhibits and was one of the originators of habitat groups. A great friend of bird artists such as Louis Agassiz Fuertes and Francis Lee Jaques, he did much for bird art. He, more than any of his contemporaries, was responsible for the spread of bird study in the United States by his numerous popular books and by founding in 1899 the journal BirdLore (now Audubon Magazine), of which he was editor until 1934. He was one of America’s first bird photographers, and the choicest products of his harvest of bird portraits were published in two books in which he recounted his adventures as a photographer in many lands.

As a scientific ornithologist Chapman had a much broader vision than some of his contemporaries at other museums, who seemed to be interested mainly in the “making” of new genera and subspecies. He was always vitally interested in the living bird, its habits and distribution. His essays on the biogeography and ecology of the birds of Colombia (1917), Ecuador (1926), and the Venezuelan highlands (1929–1931) were pioneering contributions in which he not only successfully classified South American birds into ecological associations but also advanced bold hypotheses on the history of South American birds. Chapman concentrated on the vertical zonation of these faunas and asked how the biota of the higher altitudes had evolved, what connections had formerly existed between the faunas of the temperate southern parts of the continent and those of the temperate zones at the higher altitudes (paramo) of the Andes, and, finally, how the faunas of the isolated mountains had originated and evolved. (By contrast, the faunas of the subtropical and temperate humid zones seemed to have originated from the humid tropical zone.) By his innovative researches Chapman had a great impact on the history of South American biogeography. To obtain the material for these zoogeographic researches he undertook a series of expeditions to South America, beginning in 1911 and continuing over many years. In addition he sent a number of collectors to Peru, Ecuador and Colombia to enrich the material on which he based his conclusions.

When he was well into his sixties. Chapman astounded everyone by starting on an entirely new line of research, the detailed life history of tropical bird species. He spent many winters at Barro Colorado Island in Gatun Lake, Panama, which resulted in two volumes of natural history essays (1929, 1938) and several technical monographs on the habits of certain tropical bird species, such as Wagler’s oropendola (1928) and Gould’s manakin (1935).

Chapman was deeply interested in geographic variation and speciation. In his study of polymorphism in birds he was, like Stresemann influenced by Hugo de Vries, and he considered such “mutations” as something very different from gradual variation, which he ascribed in the 1920’s to “observable environmental factors (chiefly climatic) on the species.” Like most other naturalists, he retained a belief in an inheritance of acquired characters.

Chapman’s contributions to biogeography, particularly to vertical zonation, were pioneering. In the museum he championed more than any contemporary the bird as a living creature with its own behavior and environment. He played an important role in the popularization of bird study, became one of the leaders of the conservation movement in America, and. finally, built a bird department with a balanced collection and an outstanding staff. He thus made a major contribution toward raising American ornithology to its position of leadership.


I. Original Works. Chapman’s fourteen books include Handbook of Birds of Eastern North America (New York, 1895); Camps and Cruises of an Ornithologist (New York, 1908); The Distribution of Bird-life in Colombia (New York, 1917); The Distribution of Bird-life in Ecuador (New York. 1926); Autobiography of a Bird-lover (New York, 1933); and Life in an Air Castle (New York, 1938). He published about two hundred articles, many in popular journals, but most devoted to the description of new species and subspecies of birds and to reports on collections made on expeditions.

II. Secondary Literature. Obituaries were published by William K. Gregory in Biographical Memoirs. National Academy of Science, 25 (1949), 111–145, with bibliography; and by Robert Cushman Murphy in Auk, 67 (1950), 307–315. with bibliography listing eleven other biographies and obituaries.

Ernst Mayr

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Chapman, Frank Michler

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