Currently viewing the tag: "Whitney South Seas Expedition"
110219 1925 Mrs Davis, Beck and Correia at fan palmm

Mrs Davis, Beck and Correia at fan palm 1925

The AMNH ornithological Whitney South Sea Expedition conducted active field research from 1920 to 1941. My task of writing biographical authority records of the expedition members has revealed the fascinating lives of not only the scientists who participated, but also of the often overlooked wives and native guides who assisted in the research.

The initial list of 17 participants included only the male scientists who embarked from North America. The list has since expanded to 29 and continues to grow. The added names are the wives of the scientists and the native guides or crewmen hired to help traverse the difficult terrain. It is only in brief passing that these seemingly peripheral characters are mentioned. However, their presence should not be underestimated. One field journal notes that the ship engineer, a native of the South Seas cited as “Hicks”, not only maintained the boat but also assisted team leader Rollo Beck in skinning and preparing bird specimens for shipment back to the United States.

The scientists’ wives were not merely along for a tropical vacation — Ida Beck accompanied her husband for nearly the full eight years that Rollo Beck was the expedition leader. Their exploration of the hundreds of islands comprising the South Pacific was a rough campaign full of constant illness, intense physical exertion and danger, as well as months of isolation. Many contemporary newspaper articles in the Beck vertical file at the AMNH research library vaunt Mrs. Beck as a woman on holiday who basks in the exotic landscape. However, the field journals and notes show that Ida spent most of her days aboard the cramped expedition vessel, the France. While on land she collected bird specimens and took field notes, accompanying the team through the harsh landscape, leaving little leisure time.

Another woman, Virginia Correia, was usually only referred to as the wife of Jose Correia — her first name did not appear in research until her obituary was found. Jose Correia, a collector on WSSE, described in his journal the importance of Virginia’s presence on the expedition. She saved him countless hours by collecting birds while he hunted. She gathered eggs and skinned specimens, a skill, Jose wrote, in which she surpassed most men. However, Virginia was never mentioned in field updates or official correspondence. At one point the expedition even considered charging Jose fifty cents a day to have his wife on board the France.

114957 WSSE Fiji Yasawas island 1925 The France 0001

WSSE Fiji Yasawas Island – The France – 1925

Almost one hundred years after the Whitney South Sea Expedition began, our focus has shifted to include all participants of the voyage. At times it has presented a research challenge since official correspondence often omits crew members and women. However, having access to field journals has been an invaluable source in collecting names of all who were affiliated with WSSE. A rounded story is beginning to form and I am excited at the prospect of giving the women and guides of the expedition an equal place among the scientists.