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This post was originally published on the Biodiversity Heritage Library blog, July 6, 2017.

The American Museum of Natural History selected two unique sets of material to digitize for the CLIR BHL Field Notes Project: field books from the Whitney South Sea Expedition and the Archbold Expeditions. These were two long-running undertakings to systematically explore and collect the flora and fauna of Oceania. Both contributed invaluable specimens to the scientific research and exhibition collections at AMNH. We recently completed digitization of the Whitney South Sea Expedition field notes and are thrilled to have commenced work on the Archbold material. Arguably, the most rewarding aspect of participating in this project is raising awareness of some rather remarkable individuals and expeditions. One example is the 2nd Archbold Expedition to New Guinea. We recently digitized leader Richard Archbold’s journal from that journey, which helps shine a light on this particularly fascinating story.

Archbold Expeditions is a corporation originally founded and led by Richard Archbold. It funded a research collection and staff at the AMNH Department of Mammalogy and sponsored a series of scientific collecting journeys to New Guinea and northern Australia. Heir to a substantial fortune, Archbold was a collector, explorer, ecologist, photographer, mountaineer, and pilot. As a youth he developed a love of nature and technology which carried over into all his future endeavors. He was a Research Associate at AMNH since his participation as photographer and mammalogist in the Mission zoologique franco-anglo-américaine à Madagascar, an experience which would directly inspire him to continue exploration work. He led the first three of the Archbold New Guinea Expeditions himself, and in 1940 founded the Archbold Biological Station in Florida. This research station and Archbold Expeditions were associated with AMNH until the 1980s. The Archbold Biological Station is still vitally active today.

Archbold excelled at organization and planning, recognizing needs and filling them. He regularly made use of and adapted the most current technology and also sought after the best scientists and personnel for his expeditions.

Some of the 2nd Archbold Expedition participants, including scientific party Austin Rand, G. H. H. Tate and Leonard Brass. All three participated in multiple Archbold Expeditions.
“WH2; Papua, Oroville Camp; Juhlstedt, Rand, Tate, Archbold, Burke, Healy, Brass.” Archbold Expeditions Collection, Department of Mammalogy, AMNH.

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This is my last blog post on the John Treadwell Nichols’ collection, and I’m hoping to touch hearts with it. Fortunately, I saved the especially personal and sentimental side of Nichols’ records for this purpose.

Today I finished up the last of my finding aid. It was especially messy considering I needed to go through his small pocketbooks, the personal off-the-record pocketbooks. I assumed these small books—approximately the size of matchboxes—would reflect the clinical entries of Nichols’ other stuff.

The journals spanned from the early 1930s deep into the 1950s, ending just months before Nichols’ death. From what I know of Nichols, these last few decades were quiet. Although active in his own research, Nichols’ career had arrived and blossomed. He had the title of Curator Emeritus but that was the extent of his involvement with the Museum, and while he founded some of its most notable societies, the field of Ichythyology had cooled towards Nichols. Most of his colleagues viewed Nichols as a recluse. In one letter, his youngest son observed that his father was a bit of a quiet eccentric at the end of his life who never discussed his research with the family. None of his children knew of their father’s accomplishments until they were adults.

The small pocketbooks were messier than his past journals, and scanning their yellowed pages, I wondered if there was any value to them. The script and sketches were smudged, but I noticed that he’d glued a small cut-out picture of his wife on the inside of each cover. The further I examined the books, I noticed there were small poems interspersed with the recorded animal sightings.

I started going through the pages to see if I could find a reference to his family—or his pretty wife. I knew it was unlikely because I’d seen a letter where Nichols’ son insisted that nothing too personal be contained in this public collection. I also doubt that the private and reclusive Nichols might disclose anything about his family in a book of animal observations. He must have considered that his colleagues might one day leaf through them for their own research.

While I saw no references to his family, I found a small folded essay tucked into a pocketbook from 1942. The title “Thesis on Men” made me chuckle. It reminded me of Nichols’ scientific background, and I suppose he’d approach people in the same sort of clinical manner he did to fishes, birds, or amphibians. I couldn’t tell if it was Nichols’ original work, but it had a sense of humor that a few obituaries and profile pieces referred to—a biting sense of humor that I’d had yet to see.

So here is the Entry: “Thesis on Men”
Men are what women marry.

They have two hands, two feet, and sometimes two wives, but never more than one dollar or one idea at one time. Like Turkish cigarettes, they are all made of the same material; the only difference is that some are better disguised than others.

Generally speaking, they may be divided into three classes—husbands, bachelors, and widowers. A bachelor is a negligible mass of obstinacy, entirely surrounded by suspicion. Husbands are three types—prizes, surprises and consolation prizes. Making a husband out of a man is one of the highest forms of plastic art known to civilization. It requires science, sculpture, common sense, faith, hope, and charity. Mostly charity.

It is a psychological marvel that a small, tender, soft, violet-scented thing should enjoy kissing a big, awkward, stubby-chinned, tobacco-smelling, and bay-rum scented thing like a man.

If you flatter a man, you frighten him to death. If you permit him to make love to you, he gets tired of you in the end. If you don’t, he gets tired of you in the beginning.

If you believe in him, you cease to charm him. If you believe all he tells you, he thinks you are a fool. If you wear gay colors, rouge, and a startling hat, he hesitates to take you out; but if you wear a little brown beret and a tailor-made suit, he takes you out and stares all evening at a woman in gay colors, rouge, and a startling hat.

If you join the gaieties and approve of his drinking, he swears you are driving him to the devil. If you don’t approve of his drinking and urge him to give up his gaieties, he knows you are a snob.

If you are a clinging vine type, he doubts whether you have a brain; if you are a modern, advanced, intelligent woman, he doubts whether you have a heart. If you are silly, he longs for a bright mate; if you are brilliant and intellectual, he longs for a playmate.

Man is just a worm in the dust. He comes along, wriggles around for awhile, and finally some chicken gets him.
After I read through the essay, I decided I’d include it in my blog post today. Working with archival materials can be very sad in that the people related to the materials are dead and gone and have been outlived by scraps of paper. I touch the remnants of these people and am reminded that I’ll leave my own scraps—or perhaps emails and text messages—and that will be all that’s left of me.

However, when I read this entry, I realized that Nichols valued the universality of life more deeply than his own individual accomplishments. His essay “Thesis on Men” testifies to how irrational and contradictory life is. Men are all the same—curator or not, researcher or not. We are made from the same material, and we don’t want different things but want what we don’t have. The discussion about finding a wife and being tamed by one is a universal experience that all people go through, and of course death is inevitable.

But here Nichols relishes how all men will have to struggle the same way and die, and this resonated with me. I’ll be graduating in two weeks from college, and I worry what the future holds, will I be successful, am I using my time properly? This essay by Nichols reminded me that—despite the varied details—the nature of life is uniform among all people. We find love and make love and reject love, and then we die.

The essay made me wonder what Nichols would have preferred to leave behind or be known as. I wonder if he’d have wanted his career as a curator and researcher emphasized as his foremost passion, or if he’d have been pleased to have an archival collection full of pictures of his wife and his young children. I wonder if leaving behind the legacy as a generic father would’ve pleased him much more than the 1913 founder of the naturalist magazine, Capoiea. Perhaps he wouldn’t have approved of his son’s request to suppress anything to revealing about the Nichols’ household or his parent’s marriage.

This blog entry makes me wonder what I’d fill my own archival collection with, what I’d want to be known for, etc. Success and proper titles paint a distinct picture, but I wonder if they convey a real person or a personality? I knew Nichols’ history and I knew the skill and precision of his observation and scientific writings, but these small personal details, the pictures of his wife and this small essay, gives me a much better and interesting grasp of his character.

Regardless, I’ve had an amazing time here at the American Museum of Natural History. I’ve enjoyed every second of it and am grateful to Iris Lee for mentoring me and helping me figure out the protocol. This has been a wonderful experience.

This spring, I’m creating a finding aid on the journals, manuscripts, and other documents in the John Treadwell Nichols’ Collection here at the Museum. A member of the staff at the American Museum of Natural History for fifty three years, Nichols initially began his career here as an assistant curator of recent fishes in the newly established Department of Ichthyology in 1909. (Before that, fishes were categorized under the museum’s department devoted to insects.) He became curator from 1927 until retiring in 1952 and had the position of curator emeritus until his death in 1958.

At the beginning of his career, Nichols traveled around mostly in the Atlantic, around New York and the New England region. He kept detailed notes on the animals he encountered and collected the basis of the Department’s collection of marine fish in his early years at the Museum. He traveled from Nova Scotia to Alaska, New York to Puerto Rico, and even from the United States to China to research the theory of whether some fresh fish had migrated from China to America when the two continents were joined.

Known for his efforts in the field, Nichols was attributed with personally establishing and over-seeing the Department’s expansive collection of specimens. In their profile pieces on him, several newspapers noted Nichols’ collection of fishes preserved in pickle jars that had survived his time there. When asked if the Museum encountered any problems with their fish collection, Nichols admitted that during Prohibition some employees had sipped a lot of the alcohol used for preservation of the specimens, and the fluids had run dangerously low in some jars.

In addition to his hands-on field work with the Department, Nichols published many books on fish, like “The Fresh-Water Fishes of China” and would found the American Society of Herpetologists and Ichthyologists during the forties. He’s also famous for his work on the identification of a large 998 pound white shark that that was caught off the New Jersey shore in 1935. He was an explorer and a devoted researcher who was deeply interested in the entire field of zoology.

Today, I broke into the initial journals Nichols kept. Spreading from 1907 until 1916, the journals cover Nichols’ time as a zoology major at Harvard University where he earned his BA in 1907 to his time spent as an associate curator for the new Department. The settings range from Central Park, New York City, to Havana, Cuba; however, Nichols’ analysis of the areas generally depicts the weather. He details the creatures he encounters, describing color, measurements, sex, and movements.

A strictly professional correspondence, the journal illustrates Nichols’ many travels and his high regard for detail and analysis. In writing the finding aid, I hope I can depict the information half as thoroughly as Nichols. He draws pictures and takes from the accounts of his peers, local boys from Cuban ports to New Jersey farms, and other natives to build a narrative of each new encounter. It becomes apparent what a devoted zoologist he was, and I found myself trying to keep track of his various colleagues and new locations. It was difficult to avoid getting lost in his descriptions of Mourning Warblers’ yellow bellies and their sharp short “chip chip” or the Sea Lions lying on the rocks in San Francisco. I am excited to see his personal correspondence and even get a better sense of his peers who appear generally as acronyms in these journal entries.