William Beebe was an American who held many titles including naturalist, marine biologist, ornithologist, explorer, and author. He is most famous for the many expeditions he led for the New York Zoological Society, his scientific writings, and his deep dives within the Bathysphere. Beebe was born Charles William Beebe in Brooklyn, New York in 1877. In his early life, The American Museum of Natural History and the environment of East Orange, New Jersey influenced him to explore nature and record everything he saw. He published his first article in high school and was known for being skilled at taxidermy.
In 1896, Beebe was accepted into Columbia University as an advanced placement student, where he studied under the tutelage of Henry Fairfield Osborn. He also spent half of his time at the American Museum of Natural History, where many of the university’s instructors conducted their research. Beebe convinced many of his teachers to sponsor him and a few of his fellow students to take trips to Nova Scotia. Here, Beebe collected many animal species and photographed scenes that numerous teachers used as educational material. Although he attended the college, he never received a degree, but he did receive honorary doctorates from Colgate and Tufts Universities many years later.
In 1897, Beebe became an associate member of the American Ornithologists’ Union, after which he gave his first professional lecture about ornithology. Two years later, Beebe accepted a job at the New York Zoological Park instead of finishing his degree. Here, Beebe worked as the assistant curator of ornithology and placed emphasis on giving the birds room to fly, which some ornithologists criticized. During his time working at the New York Zoological Park, Beebe returned to Nova Scotia to collect marine animals, was promoted to full curator, married Mary Blair Rice, and traveled to the Florida Keys to conduct research for the zoo. By the time he was 26, he had published more than thirty-four photographs and articles and was chosen to become a fellow in the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
In late 1903, Beebe was sent on an expedition to Mexico, where his superior believed he could avoid another bout of the throat ailment that would affect Beebe for the rest of his life. This trip was meant for collecting Mexican bird specimens for the zoo as well, but Beebe and his wife considered it another honeymoon, which they had called several other research expeditions. Two books were published as a result of this trip, including The Bird, Its Form and Function which was published in 1906. This book focused on the evolution and biology of birds, as well as conservation, which was a new concept to Beebe.
Beebe took many other trips for the zoo including a trip to British Guiana, from which the zoo attained thirty-three new species, and a trip around the world to study as many species of pheasant as possible. This trip was highly successful in both quantity of specimens found and recorded information about those specimens. Because of this trip, Beebe is known for being the first scientist to understand how sexual dimorphism relates to sexual selection. Beebe and Blair divorced after this expedition. The manuscript from the trip was completed in 1914, but it was not until the end of World War I that the book would published in full and released to the public.
In 1915, Beebee and two other men traveled to Brazil to gather more bird species for the zoo. During this trip, Beebe found himself in a mentoring position, having more experience than his fellow travelers had, and he discovered that it could be very beneficial to study a small area of wildlife for a long period. Beebe traveled to Georgetown in 1916 in order to find backing to build a permanent research station in Guiana, known as Kalacoon Research Center. Beebe helped the war effort in 1917 by training pilots and taking aerial photographs. In 1918, he was given a promotion and became the head of the Department of Tropical Research, which gave him the opportunity to do more research.
In 1923, Beebe was given permission to use a yacht to sail to the Galapagos Islands where he planned to find more evidence supporting Darwin’s theory of evolution. He discovered that animals living here had developed virtually free of predators and were not scared of humans, which allowed him to gather specimens for the zoo. He took a second trip there in 1923, documenting the effects of El Niño for the first time and studying more marine creatures, as well as a volcanic eruption and its effects on wildlife. Beebe took many other trips in his lifetime including trips to Haiti, Bermuda, the tropics, and Nonsuch Island.
William Beebe spent his final years in Trinidad, spending much of his time studying insects, birds, and other wildlife by combining the research methods he used in the past. He retired from his position as NYZS’s Department of Zoological Society on his birthday in 1952 and became the Director Emeritus. Beebe took his last full expedition in 1955, but he was still able to explore nearby areas until 1959, by which time his health had deteriorated. Beebe passed away in 1962 from pneumonia, but he was remembered as being vivid and joyful until his last days.
Image Caption: William Beebe on an expedition to Guiana in 1917. Credit: New York Zoological Society (now known as the Wildlife Conservation Society)/Wikipedia