Ridgway, Robert

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(b. Mt. Carmel, Illinois, 2 July 1850; d. Olney, Illinois, 25 March 1929) ornithology.

Ridgway received his love for the outdoors and most of his education from his father, David Ridgway, a small-town pharmacist. Having come to the attention of Baird of the Smithsonian Institution because of his bird drawings, young Ridgway was appointed, in 1867, zoologist of the U.S. Geological Survey directed by Clarence King. On his return he was employed by the Smithsonian, serving as curator of birds at the U.S. National Museum until he retired.

After the death of Baird and Coues, Ridgway was considered America’s leading professional ornithologist. From 1887, when he published Manual of North American Birds, until 1919, when the eighth part of “Birds of North and Middle America” appeared, his publications were the standard reference works on North American birds. Ridgway is best described as a superb technician. He represented the acme of descriptive taxonomy. During his lifetime he described far more new genera, species, and subspecies of American birds than any other ornithologist. His bibliography of some 550 titles clearly delineates the scope of his interests. It includes reports on collections, the description of new taxa, records of new distributional facts, notes on geographic variation and nomenclature, generic revisions, as well as occasional popular papers. There is an almost total absence of generalized or philosophical papers, nor was his considerable knowledge of the living bird reflected in his publications.

In his lifetime Ridgway was universally admired, having set standards of accuracy and reliability that others could safely use as a basis for their researches. A warm advocate of trinomials, he was considered a “progressive” in the 1880’s. The dominance of his ideas came to an end when polytypic species were much more broadly conceived by others than by Ridgway himself and when the genus was no longer defined purely morphologically. Consequently, most of the genera described by him are now considered synonyms.

Ridgway was a modest man and was so shy that he was virtually unknown except to his close friends. His capacity for work was amazing. His published works amount to approximately 13,000 printed pages, all written without the aid of typewriter or stenographer. Second to ornithology, Ridgway was best known for his color key. This work, consisting of fifty-three plates showing 1,115 colors in small rectangles, was published in an edition of 5,000 copies. Each color was hand-mixed according to a careful formula, and to ensure absolute uniformity each color was produced at a single time in sufficient quantity for the entire edition. The work was widely used not only among scientists but also among florists; manufacturers of paints, chemicals, and wallpapers; and in many government offices. When a careful description of colors was necessary, no better method for objective description was known, until fairly recently, except by comparison with Ridgway’s Color Standard.


I. Original Works. Ridgway’s works include A History of North American Birds: Land Birds, 3 vols. (Boston, 1874), written with S. F. Baird and T. M. Brewer; A Manual of North American Birds (Philadelphia, 1887); “The Birds of North and Middle America,” in Bulletin. United States National Museum, no. 50, pt. 1 (1901); pt. 2 (1902); pt. 3 (1904); pt. 4 (1907); pt. 5 (1911); pt. 6 (1914); pt. 7 (1916); pt. 8 (1919); and Color Standards and Color Nomenclature (Baltimore, 1912). A bibliography accompanies both of the biographies listed below.

II. Secondary Literature. On Ridgway’s life and work, see A. Wetmore, in Biographical Memoirs. National Academy of Sciences, 15 (1932), 57–101: and H. Harris, “Robert Ridgway,” in Condor, 30 (1928), 5–118.

Ernst Mayr