Young James Chapin with owl, 1906-7?

“Young James Chapin with owl”, circa 1906.  AMNH Department of Ornithology.

As part of my internship this fall at the American Museum of Natural History, I was asked to create authority records for the American Museum Congo Expedition (1909-1915) and its two scientists: the mammalogist Herbert Lang and ornithologist James Paul Chapin. I particularly became engrossed with the story of Chapin’s experiences. He was a fascinating figure in the history of the Museum, and one of those individuals I have now placed on my “If I could have a dinner party with five people” wish list.

Born a stone’s throw from the Museum, Chapin’s family moved to Staten Island when he was three.  There he cultivated a love of nature, encouraged by his mother.  His childhood nickname was Chippy, and his first scientific presentation as a teen was on the observations of a mouse in captivity.  Although he had obtained a scholarship to Columbia University, he postponed college for a year after high school and obtained work at the Museum.  It was there that he found his home away from home.  He would stay with the Museum for 43 years, and even after his retirement maintained a very close association with the institution as Curator Emeritus.  In 1935 he wrote that he was “First employed by American Museum at the age of 16…hopes to work hard for the Museum as long as he lives.” He ultimately would do just that.

Chapin in his first Congo Expedition, "[Lang, Herbert] (1879-1957) Silver gelatin photograph  AMNH Department of Ornithology."

Chapin in his first Congo Expedition
“[Lang, Herbert] (1879-1957)
Silver gelatin photograph
AMNH Department of Ornithology.”

          When Chapin was 19 years old he was hand-chosen by Lang to be his assistant on the Congo Expedition.  Although he was still in college, he jumped at the chance to take this adventure.  These two men would be the only members of the proposed two year Expedition.  It ultimately lasted six years.  Hence Chapin left New York an enthusiastic young man and returned an experienced field researcher, well on the road to becoming a world expert on African ornithology.  The journey would be considered perilous. The Congo Free State (later Belgian Congo) had a tumultuous history, with declarations of barbarity by the governing bodies as well as the accusations of cannibalism in the area.  I know that at 19 I would never have been brave enough to take such an excursion. I cannot imagine what his family was feeling as he departed.  In fact, after a communication blockage resulting in about a year and a half without communication, Chapin’s letter to his mother even made the newspaper!  It is a charming juxtaposition that this young man helping to lead an expedition in a foreign country, training native assistants, preparing material, collecting and describing specimens would need to write home to his mother to please let his college know that again he won’t be back in time for the next semester.

The journey fostered a lifelong friendship with the two men.  Although Lang was only ten years older, Chapin considered him a father figure and admired him greatly.  The Congolese would even call Chapin ‘mtoto na Langi’ (Lang’s son). This expedition also fostered a love affair with Africa for both men.  Lang would ultimately settle there, and Chapin would return to the Congo again and again for research and be credited with discovering the Congo peacock. He did become a world authority on African birds, achieving a PhD in Ornithological field work and publishing greatly, including his four-volume Birds of the Congo.  He was reputedly a wonderful and engaging speaker, and was a prolific correspondent and record keeper.  I was able to examine amazingly detailed acquaintance card files he kept, many of which were illustrated with small drawings and doodles. It seems as if he never lost the passion for what he did and for sharing it with others, which makes him such a fitting and wonderful representative of this Museum, and one whom I feel privileged to get to “know.”

2 Responses to My Ode to Chippy: thoughts on James Chapin

  1. Henry Mercelis Raven says:

    I knew James Chapin, a close friend and associate of my father, Henry Cushier Raven, who was curator of comparative anatomy at AMNH at the time of Raven’s death on April 5, 1944.

  2. daniel cunningham says:

    As an avid birder becoming more interested in our tough predecessors I apppreciate this thoughtful and felt commentary on a field pioneer I now know a bit,and yearn for more information about!?
    Good company with Chapman and Beebe.I shall acquire Chapins works!

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