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Chapman, Frank Michlerfree

(12 June 1864–15 November 1945)
  • Keir B. Sterling

Frank M. Chapman.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-102412).

Chapman, Frank Michler (12 June 1864–15 November 1945), ornithologist and museum curator, was born in Englewood Township, New Jersey, the son of Lebbeus Chapman, Jr., a partner in a New York City law firm, and Mary Augusta Parkhurst. His father died when his son was eleven. In addition to possessing a strong ornithological interest from the age of eight, Chapman inherited a musical ear from his mother, and his daughter-in-law, Gladys Swarthout, for many years a soloist with the Metropolitan Opera, later stated that Chapman was “an almost infallible critic and commentator.”

Chapman’s home until 1905 was a forty-acre fruit farm, to which his father had added a great many trees. Chapman then moved into the town of Englewood and later lived in New York City. He attended Englewood Academy for ten years, save for one term following his father’s death in 1876, when the family lived in Baltimore. He had little interest in his studies but was encouraged in his growing fascination with nature by his mother. On graduating from Englewood Academy in 1880, he elected not to go to college and was employed by a New York bank for which his father had been counsel.

As his ornithological avocation grew stronger, Chapman began a collection of bird skins. When in 1884 Dr. Clinton Hart Merriam, chairman of the Committee on Migration of the newly formed American Ornithologists’ Union (AOU), asked for volunteers to make observations on the migration of birds, Chapman eagerly signed up. The report he submitted on these observations impressed the AOU committee. He was elected an associate member of the AOU in 1885; he also became a member of the Linnaean Society of New York.

By 1886 Chapman had decided to devote himself to ornithology. He resigned from the bank, supported himself with a modest inheritance from his father, and spent part of the next several years collecting birds in Florida. He also volunteered his services identifying and cataloging birds for Joel Asaph Allen, the newly appointed curator of birds and mammals at the American Museum of Natural History. In 1888 Chapman was made an assistant to Allen at a salary of $50 a month, beginning an association with the American Museum that would last more than half a century. In 1901 he became associate curator of birds and mammals, and in 1908, when the museum work in ornithology and mammalogy was formally divided, he became curator of birds. The Department of Birds was created at the American Museum in 1920; Chapman was named its first chairman, and he remained in this position until 1942. The fundamentally shy Chapman, who possessed a number of personality quirks, enjoyed the affectionate respect of his museum colleagues, to whom he was known as “the Chief.” During his long tenure, the number of bird skins held by the American Museum grew through assiduous effort by staff members and by purchase from some 10,000 specimens to more than 750,000, making it the leading collection in the world.

Once he had a thorough grounding in ornithological systematics and distribution, Chapman reorganized the museum’s bird displays to differentiate between the 350 species found in the New York City region and those found elsewhere. There was also a seasonal exhibit that focused on “birds of the month,” divided between permanent resident and migratory species. In 1900, or soon thereafter, a wealthy museum patron suggested placing bird mountings in more lifelike settings. Chapman developed the concept of habitat groups, first conceptualized by artist Charles Willson Peale in the early nineteenth century. Mounted specimens were displayed in lifelike imitations of their habitat, with well-executed painted backgrounds, so that they could be understood in relation to their environment. A well-written museum handbook explaining his system went through many editions. This approach to museum display gradually became standard throughout the United States and other parts of the world.

For the growing audience of bird watchers in the field, Chapman published a series of popular volumes beginning in the mid-1890s. His Handbook of Birds of Eastern North America (1895) was the most detailed and went through several editions and reprintings. More introductory works included Bird Life: A Guide to the Study of Our Common Birds (1897), Color Key to North American Birds (1903), and What Bird Is That? A Pocket Museum of the Land Birds of Eastern United States Arranged According to Season (1920). All of these were several times revised or reprinted and reached a very wide audience until the early 1940s. Several of these volumes were illustrated by leading illustrators of the day, notably Louis Agassiz Fuertes, Ernest Thompson Seton, and Chester A. Reed. Bird Studies with a Camera (1900) dealt with bird photography, while Camps and Cruises of an Ornithologist (1908) was an early account of his experiences as a bird observer. The Warblers of North America (1907) reflected a research interest of long standing. In all Chapman published seventeen books and 225 articles. In 1899 he founded Bird Lore, a popular journal that he used to advocate his views on conservation and to educate the public about birds; he served as the journal’s publisher until 1935. This journal was sold to the National Audubon Society and became Audubon Magazine and later Audubon. His other writings for a general audience appeared in popular periodicals such as National Geographic and Popular Science Monthly. As a result of his many writings for general audiences, Chapman was recognized as one of the most effective exponents of nature study in the nation.

Chapman had begun his research on birdlife outside the United States with trips to Cuba, Mexico, and Trinidad in the early and mid-1890s, and again after 1910. He first visited South America in 1911. Chapman’s biogeographical studies, particularly on the discontinuous geographical ranges of birds, dealt in part with earlier geographical barriers to their distribution. His fieldwork in the Andean region of South America also demonstrated the importance of various plant and animal associations, climate, and altitude in certain “life zones.” These findings were reflected both in displays at the American Museum and in a series of published studies, notably The Distribution of Bird Life in Colombia (1917), The Distribution of Bird Life in the Urubamba Valley of Peru (1921), “The Distribution of Bird Life in Ecuador” (1926), and “The Upper Zonal Bird Life of Mts. Roraima and Duida” (1931). Chapman was president of the AOU in 1912 and was awarded the AOU’s William Brewster Medal in 1933. Other honors included the first Medal of the Linnaean Society of New York, of which he had been president (1912), and the Daniel Giraud Elliott Medal of the National Academy of Sciences (1917). He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, in 1921, and he received an honorary membership in the British Ornithologists’ Union. He also received the Roosevelt Medal (1928) and the John Burroughs Medal for his writing about nature (1929). In 1913 he received an honorary doctorate of science from Brown University. As an American Red Cross volunteer during World War I, Chapman was first director of its Department of Publications in Washington and later a special representative of the Red Cross in Latin America.

In 1898 Chapman married Fannie Bates Embury, a widow with four children; the couple had one son. Chapman died in New York.


Field notes, manuscripts of Chapman’s books, and correspondence are in the Department of Ornithology, American Museum of Natural History, N.Y. Chapman covered many of the events of his life in three autobiographical volumes: My Tropical Air Castle: Nature Studies in Panama (1929), Autobiography of a Bird Lover (1933), and Life in an Air Castle (1938), his last book, which perhaps most ably sets forth his philosophy of nature study. Several colleagues wrote useful biographical sketches, including William K. Gregory’s lengthy memoir in National Academy of Sciences, Biographical Memoirs 25 (1948), to which is appended a complete bibliography; J. T. Zimmer’s in American Naturalist (1946); and several by Robert Cushman Murphy in the Yearbook of the American Philosophical Society (1946) and the Auk, July 1950. See also Paul R. Cutright, The Great Naturalists Explore South America (1940); Victor W. von Hagen, The Green World of the Naturalists (1948); Geoffrey T. Hellman, Bankers, Bones & Beetles: The First Century of the American Museum of Natural History (1968); and J. M. Kennedy, “Philanthropy and Science in New York City: The American Museum of Natural History, 1868–1968” (Ph.D. diss., Yale Univ., 1968). Elizabeth S. Austin edited some of Chapman’s letters and journals from his early years in Florida in Frank M. Chapman in Florida (1967). Obituaries are in the New York Times and New York Herald Tribune, both 17 Nov. 1945.