Care Package from Home

A look at letters from home that the Smithsonian's Dr. Waldo L. Schmitt received while traveling on expeditions in 1925.

A letter from Waldo Schmitt Jr. to his father, 1925. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Image Number If the typical museum curator and taxonomist is an individual who shuns controversy and even the company of others in order to preserve the tranquility conducive to complex cogitation, Waldo Schmitt did not fit the image. 

Hard-nosed, hard-headed, and hard of hearing, Dr. Waldo L. Schmitt was an influential marine biologist for much of the 20th century. He specialized in carcinology (the study of crustaceans), first joining the Smithsonian as an assistant curator in the Division of Marine Invertebrates in 1914. A tireless collector, he is credited with orchestrating the collection of over 15,000 specimens at the Carnegie Marine Laboratory at Dry Tortugas in Florida beginning in 1924. In addition to this effort, Schmitt conducted research and collection expeditions in South America, the Galapagos Islands, the West Indies, and Alaska from about 1925 to 1945.

And yet, even proud explorers sometimes miss home.

Schmitt was born in Washington D.C. and called the district home for most of his life. He married Alvina Stumm in 1914. Together they had two children, Waldo Jr. and Barbara. His children were a soft spot within his otherwise formidable façade – “his affection for the underdog was most apparent where children were concerned,” one colleague wrote of him. “Even after attaining the age of four-score years, he would have eagerly adopted a new family, if it could have been arranged.” 

Alvina wrote frequently to Schmitt during his travels. She often bundled in a few letters and drawings from their children (which she captioned to make the drawings more recognizable). Schmitt consistently kept these letters and drawings, bringing them home from his expeditions to file with his other correspondences. These documents were ultimately placed with his research papers in the Archives (SIA RU007231). Included in this post is one envelope and its contents, which Alvina sent in 1925. Schmitt was on a collection trip in Uruguay at the time. Upon opening the envelope, he found:

  • A letter from his wife Alvina, recounting the week
  • A note from Waldo Jr. (“Written without help except to spell Rudolf”)
  • Three drawings from Barbara: “A fat snake," and two portraits (one of “Mother” and another of “Daddy”)

A drawing by Barbara Schmitt for her father, Dr. Waldo L. Schmitt, 1925.

A drawing by Barbara Schmittfor her father, Dr. Waldo L. Schmitt, 1925.

Waldo LaSalle Schmitt, by Unknown, 1965, Smithsonian Archives - History Div, 92-1775.
For context, here is a photograph of “Daddy” Schmitt himself. Note the bow tie and spikey hair:  

Waldo Jr. served during World War II and was killed in Europe in 1944. In public, Schmitt’s career continued undaunted, and he became the head curator of the Department of Zoology soon after the war’s end. Privately, the loss devastated him. Remarked a colleague in a short biography after Schmitt’s death in 1978: “the death of his only son, the elder of the two Schmitt children, on the German front in 1944, creat[ed] a void that could never be reconciled.” 

These letters and others from the Schmitt papers are being made available online through the Internet Archive, and you can help transcribe these letters with the Smithsonian Transcription Center.

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