The Smithsonian’s scientists and naturalists were, and still are, constantly on the move. When they weren’t in the field, they were in the museum studying collected specimens, writing papers, and getting ready for the next series of trips. Dr. Waldo LaSalle Schmitt (1887-1977) was no exception. One of his field books, “Correspondence, 1925-1930,” gave me an up close view how easily things could go awry with seeming simple things like transportation and mail.
Over 400 pages in length, the field book is comprised of letters and cables received during his time on scholarship-funded expeditions to South America. When he returned stateside, Schmitt also interfiled the letters he had penned to his family during his travels. Needless to say, the personal correspondence makes for a more complete picture of this time.
Forward two stops, back one
Planning ahead was the name of the game back in the 1920s, just as it is today. The straightforward approach of sailing south from one port to the next port further south was not endorsed by a colleague named Rudolf in a letter dated November 9, 1922.
“You will find that it will take considerable planning after you get in South America to catch the steamships so as not to waste time waiting for them. By that I mean, that after you get the schedules of sailings, you will often find that you can get to all the ports you wish to stop at, most quickly, by going beyond a certain port, to the next one, working there, and then catching the next steamer back to the port you skipped. So you can often save time and money by working back and forth along the coast. You can't very well plan this sort of coast itinerary until you get down there, but that is of no importance. We did that sort of thing on the West coast when I was down there and it worked very well.”
It seems like an overly-complicated method for traveling, doesn’t it? However, as I continued to work my way through more letters, I saw a theme develop from the correspondence: ships don’t arrive or depart on time, cargo permits are issued too late, or custom shipping crates that were to be ready have yet to be built. In light of these things, Schmitt’s colleague’s advice is sage advice indeed. Rather than depending solely on an major passenger or shipping line, this back and forth approach meant Schmitt could use local steamers or sailing vessels and set sail to the next port as soon as he and his equipment was ready.
I hadn’t heard from you for so long that the Museum sent a cable …
The wry affection and candor in the personal correspondence between Schmitt and his wife Alvina speaks volumes about the husband and father whose work took him far away for months on end. It also exposes the strain poor mail service put on them both. Letters and parcels were lost, delayed, or even opened by local government officials before delivery. In Waldo’s case, some of the letters from home would arrive days after he had moved on to the next port. In a letter from March 22, 1927, she writes:
“I'm about heart broken that I missed the letter which surely was aboard that Grace steamer that got in the day this one left Valparaiso, I suppose now it will be three weeks more before I receive it. I shall try to make the Falklands at the earliest opportunity to have that over with finishing up at Punta Arenas as soon as I get back.”
Nonetheless, correspondence from his wife also kept him informed of events back home in Washington, such as the death cherished colleague William Healey Dall in March 1927. Schmitt had traveled with Dall off the west coast of the United States and Alaska years before studying marine invertebrates. Other news included insight into the behind-the-scenes activity of the Smithsonian such as who might replace Secretary Charles Doolittle Walcott who had died the month before Dall. (Ornithologist Alexander Wetmore was considered by some to be a leading candidate before Charles Greely Abbott was appointed fifth Secretary of the Smithsonian.)
In spite of all these hurdles, Dr. Waldo Schmitt’s work made a significant impact on the development of systematic zoology and scientific understanding of crustaceans and marine invertebrates around the world.
- Where was Waldo...Smithsonian Field Book Project Blog, December 5, 2011
- Care Package From Home, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Record Unit 7231. Schmitt, Waldo L. (Waldo Lasalle), 1887-1977. Waldo L. Schmitt Papers, 1907-1978, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Walter Rathbone Bacon Traveling Scholarship Expeditions to the East and West Coasts of South America, 1925-1927 ; Correspondence, 1925–1930, Smithsonian Institution Archives