The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
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This post celebrates the 40th anniversary of the Smithsonian National Zoo's Conservation Biology Institute. We are also celebrating 50 years of conservation science at the Zoo.
In 1959, veterinarian Dr. Theodore H. Reed became director of the Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park. The Zoo had survived the trying years of the Great Depression and World War II, so Reed’s early days were spent improving the collection. But he had a larger plan to meet the unfulfilled mandates of the National Zoo's founders for research, education, and conservation of endangered species. Gradually he built up a staff of researchers who studied animal biology, nutrition, reproduction, and behavior. In 1965, he hired the Zoo's first resident scientist, ecologist John Eisenberg, to focus on the mammals of Neotropics. It was clear that zoo life was stressful for many animals and interfered with reproduction. Reed had seen the London Zoo’s facility at Whipsnade – not ideal but it did allow animals to live quietly in natural groups. He decided to develop an even better facility in the United States to carry out Zoo founder William Temple Hornaday’s commitment to conservation of species on the brink of extinction.
In the early 1970s, he got the green light from Smithsonian Secretary S. Dillon Ripley, also an ardent conservationist. He looked at several sites but found all had significant drawbacks, until Smithsonian Institution Press director Ted Rivinus suggested he look at a shuttered USDA Cattle Station in Front Royal, Virginia. When Reed saw it, he thought he "had died and gone to heaven." Over 3,000 acres set in the rolling hills and blue skies of western Virginia, it contained barns, paddocks, woods, and buildings for staff. Hidden by a screen of woods, it was a quiet refuge for animal species under duress. They were given a temporary permit in January 1974, and three scimitar-horned oryx took up residence. Forty years ago, on June 22, 1975, the Conservation and Research Center (CRC) of the National Zoological Park was formally launched. Its first director, Chris Wemmer, set it on course. In 1975, more hoofed stock arrived, including Grants zebra, Pere David deer, onangers, and Eld’s deer. The animals immediately abandoned the nuclear family groups they were kept in, forming female breeding herds and bachelor herds. Shy animals like Eld’s deer thrived in quiet locations.
Guy Greenwell arrived to care for the birds and successfully hatched nineteen Hawaiian geese the first year. Devra Kleiman began a maned wolf breeding program. Reproductive physiologist JoGayle Howard pioneered new techniques for assisted reproduction with remarkable success. The facility was not opened to the public to ensure the health and safety of such critically endangered species as Guam rails, clouded leopards, and black-footed ferrets. Staff scrub and use protective gear when working in those enclosures.
CRC director Wemmer established ethology programs to study animal behavior at the zoo facilities and in the wild in 25 foreign countries. In 1981 Wemmer initiated a Wildlife Conservation and Management Training Program for zoo and wildlife managers from across the globe. Coordinated by biologist Rudy Rudran, wildlife managers from developing nations came for extended study and formed relationships with their cohort of classmates that often lasted the remainder of their careers. Eventually the training programs expanded to the new joint Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI)/George Mason University conservation training center.
Today, the SCBI (formerly CRC) stands on 3200 acres outside of Front Royal, Virginia, home to more than 400 animals, including 17 mammalian and 15 avian species. SCBI facilitates and promotes research programs based at Front Royal, the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., and at field research stations and training sites worldwide. Although not open to the public for most of the year (SCBI holds an open house for the public the first weekend of October each year), occasionally when driving down the road adjoining the specialized facility, you can catch a peek of an oryx or Przewalski’s horse grazing peacefully among the rolling hills.
- Record Unit 9553: Conservation of Endangered Species Videohistory Collection, 1990, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Soil science might sound like a dull backwater of research but its work is ever more essential. As the world grows increasingly concerned about how climate change will affect food security, the United Nations has declared 2015 the International Year of Soils.
During the 1920s, soil science was an area of vibrant research, especially in the United States. In 1927, the scientists' new professional association, the International Society of Soil Science, held its inaugural meeting in conjunction with the congress of the International Union of Soil Scientists (IUSS).
President Calvin Coolidge underscored the topic's importance in his remarks during the IUSS opening session. One need only "reflect upon the extent to which all mankind is dependent upon the soil either directly or indirectly for food, clothing and shelter," he emphasized. "Long after our mines have ceased to give up their treasures...the soil must continue to produce the food necessary for feeding the ever increasing populations of the world."
From June 13 to 22, 1927, conference delegates gave and listened to scientific papers, as well as visited local sites. A bus trip to Baltimore, Maryland, on June 21 even included viewing "a virgin profile of Leonardtown silt loam, exposed by a road cut." The guide pointed out the area's characteristic layer of clay, which these agricultural specialists knew could make the soil "cold and waterlogged in the spring and droughty in the late summer" and therefore impede plant growth. As the guide noted, "It is said that George Washington learned to swear while farming this soil. Do you wonder?"
That reference to the first American president was not accidental. On the previous Saturday, June 18, many delegates had boarded an excursion boat and traveled down the Potomac River to visit Mount Vernon. Watson Davis's photographs of the participants preserve a record of that pleasant summer day.
Davis photographed several participants who had come from abroad, including the leaders of the Russian delegation.
Konstantin Dmitrievich Glinka, director of the Agricultural College of Leningrad and Experimental Station and a well-respected member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, was one of the organizers of the Washington conference and had just been elected president of the new society.
Vladimir Vasilevich Gemmerling was the first dean of the department of geology at the University of Moscow and director of the Regional Moscow Experiment Station. A. A. Yarilov was on the faculty at the University of Moscow and edited the Russian journal Pedology. He was also the society's official historian. A. N. Goodlina, the only woman among Russian scientists on the boat trip, was affiliated with the Agricultural Institute in Gyorky.
Jacob Samuel Joffe, a professor in the soil chemistry department of the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station at Rutgers, had gotten to know members of the Russian delegation because he translated all their papers. At the conference, talks were delivered in a speaker's native language (e.g., Russian) but translated into English for the published proceedings. Another international delegate was M. Winick, director of the Experiment Station at Mikweh-Israel, whose research focused on soil chemistry and soil bacteriology.
Among the American participants photographed by Davis was agronomist James Henry Stallings, an expert on soil fertility and bacteriology at the J. C. Penney-Gwinn Corporation. Stallings later worked for the U. S. Department of Agriculture's Soil Conservation Service. Another participant from the world of commercial agriculture was H. G. Zuckerman, a prominent California potato grower. John Sedgwick Burd taught agricultural chemistry in the College of Agriculture at the University of California.
Within a few years of the Washington conference, as documented in Pare Lorentz's 1937 film, The Plow That Broke the Plains, soil science gained new relevance for Washington policymakers. The Dust Bowl had taught harsh lessons about how climate, soil conditions, and agricultural practices affected national well-being.
Today's soil scientists are more likely to be on Twitter or Facebook than to take slow boats down the Potomac. They are also increasingly sensitive to the larger social and cultural context for their work. At the 20th World Congress of Soil Science, which met in South Korea in June 2014, a lively art exhibition and film screenings demonstrated how artists and scientists are working together to communicate about the importance of soil science.
- Science Service collections at the Smithsonian Institution Archives