Have you ever walked through the halls of the American Museum of Natural History and imagined what it was like for a scientist in the 1920s to gather specimens and interpret important data? As a seasonal intern for the CLIR Hidden Collections project, I’m helping uncover and organize information documented by the museum and its staff for all interested researchers. Recently I’ve been working with the papers of Henry Cushier Raven, an Associate Curator of Comparative and Human Anatomy at the Museum and the plethora of his scientific reports- one of which had a very unique origin story…

AMNH neg.311245

“Hall of Ocean Life, showing assembling whale skeletons”, December 1925.
AMNH neg.311245

The construction of the Hall of Ocean life was a gradual one. Collecting, assembling, hoisting, and securing those massive mammals took time.  One positive aspect to the slow movement is that it left ample floor space for storage and assembly. When most would see a half-empty room longing for furniture, Raven saw the perfect space to continue his studies.

In 1928, a two-ton baby sperm whale (Physeter catodon) found its way into the Gowanus area of Brooklyn, NY. Although strange animal guests like this have entered the Gowanus canal several times since then, this initial event caused a bit of fervor with both the locals and the reporting media. Even the New York Times had a bit of fun: “Two-Ton Whale Seized In Gowanus Canal; Puts Up Terrific Fight; Museum Will Get It (March 14, 1928).”

Raven knew immediately that the whale would make a perfect specimen for muscle anatomy study. George G. Goodwin, Associate Curator of Mammalogy jumped into action quickly, securing a suitable flat-bed transport, some capable hands, and fifty dollars to pay for the catch.  Once the whale was safe within the museum walls, Raven sacrificed all of his embalming fluid reserves for a few precious days of dissection in one of the only places in the museum large (and empty) enough, the Hall of Ocean Life.

And so Raven began, inspecting, discovering, and recording all that he saw. He was so enraptured by the beast’s anatomical structure that his dissection took several, more pungent days than expected. So many sour-smelling Spring days, in fact, that it created some very languid coworkers and one angry Museum Director George H. Sherwood.

AMNH Neg. 311246

“Hall of Ocean Life, showing assembling whale skeletons”, December 1925.
AMNH neg.311245

Raven and museum associate William K. Gregory were dissatisfied with past research on spermaceti organs and nasal passages: “[These other scientists] have left us with a bewildering mass of details with but passing clues as to the function, origin or evolution of the several parts” and used the Gowanus whale to right past wrongs. Together they wrote “The spermaceti organ and nasal passages of the sperm whale (Physeter catodon) and other odontocetes.”

Most of Raven’s detailed photographs and illustrations proved essential for today’s understanding of muscle mechanics, evolutionary traits, and habitat preservation. In 2007 yet another young whale found it’s way into the Gowanus canal and subsequently died. Comparative anatomist Joy Reidenberg’s findings on this young whale’s death (and rarely seen whale anatomy in general) heralds back to the excitement of scientific discovery that Raven surely felt.

More examples of Raven’s findings can be found in the Henry C. Raven papers, AMNH Special Collections (Mss .R38). To view essay drafts and illustrations relating to the Gowanus baby sperm whale, please see Box 1, Folders 4, 21.

2 Responses to Gowanus or Bust

  1. Henry Mercelis Raven says:

    Now and then I Google to see what I can find about my father, Henry Cushier Raven. So — today, another discovery. Henry M. Raven (Harry)
    44 Meadowbrook Rd.
    Brick NJ 08723-7850

  2. [...] and biographies of the expedition members are a treasure trove of interesting information. The most recent entry on Henry Cushier Raven, an Associate Curator of Comparative and Human Anatomy at the Museum, [...]

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