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Charles William Beebe

Charles William Beebe

1877-1962

American Naturalist and Explorer

Despite an early, brilliant career in ornithology that took him on scientific expeditions from Nova Scotia to South America to the Himalayas, Dr. William Beebe is best remembered for his exploration and observations of the deep sea. With engineer Otis Barton, Beebe was the first to make direct study of the ocean and marine life within a tethered vessel a half mile down. In addition to his scientific pursuits, Beebe wrote nearly 300 articles and books, including Half Mile Down (1943) about his trips into the depths of the sea.

Born on July 29, 1877, to a paper dealer and a homemaker, Charles William Beebe grew up in East Orange, New Jersey. Young Will's family encouraged an interest in nature, taking trips to the American Museum of Natural History during which the boy would bring specimens to be identified. Because his family was not wealthy and thus couldn't afford an expensive education for their only son, Beebe's friendships with museum staff helped increase his knowledge of natural history as well as his skill in taxidermy and eventually led to his acceptance as a special student at Columbia University, where he studied from 1896 to 1899. He never officially graduated, although he was later awarded honorary Doctorate in Science degrees from Colgate University and Tufts College (1928).

In October 1899 the president of the American Museum of Natural History, also a professor at Columbia and the first president of the New York Zoological Society, offered Beebe the post of Assistant Curator of Birds at the new zoological park, which would open in the Bronx in November 8 of that year. As assistant curator, and eventually full curator (1902), Beebe helped stock the zoo's huge flying cage and bird house, making it one of the finest such collections in the world. With his first wife, Mary, whom he wed in 1902, Beebe traveled to study and collect specimens—to Mexico in 1903 and to Trinidad and Venezuela in 1908. In December 1909 Beebe headed an expedition to the Far East to study the pheasants of the world. The expedition traveled nearly 52,000 miles (83,686 km) and visited 22 countries before returning in May 1911. Beginning in 1918, Beebe published a four-volume set of his research from the journey, entitled A Monograph of the Pheasants.

Even before his monograph on pheasants was published, Beebe's focus had turned to the tropical jungles when he became director of the zoo's new Department of Tropical Research. In early 1916 he opened the Bronx Zoo's first research station in British Guiana. In 1923 Beebe was in charge of a research expedition to the Galapagos Islands, where he studied land and marine life, making oceanographic studies in the Sargasso Sea during the journey. His studies sparked a desire to explore more of the earth's oceans, especially their depths, and in the late 1920s Beebe began helmet diving and dreaming of diving deeper.

After several years of traditional diving with the helmet breathing apparatus, Beebe wanted more—and began designing a depth chamber to allow humans to dive to deeper ocean depths. Around that time, he met a fellow diving enthusiast, Otis Barton, who had designed a spherical steel vessel that Beebe named the bathysphere. In June 1930 the duo made their first test dive, and after extensive testing and modifications to the bathysphere, Beebe and Barton descended to a record depth of 3,028 feet (923 m) in 1934. Beebe wrote about their experiences in his book Half Mile Down in 1943.

After the deep ocean adventures of the bathysphere, Beebe settled down to more mundane pursuits, including the editing of The Book of Naturalists (1944). In July 1952 he retired from his position as director of the Department of Tropical Research at the Bronx Zoo. He returned to his estate called Simla in Trinidad, where he died in June 1962. His will proved that the New York Zoological Society, the guiding force behind the Bronx Zoo, remained close to his heart when he donated Simla and its 228 acres of land to the society.

ANN T. MARSDEN

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