In 1938, Lucile Mann and her husband were presented with the Franklin L. Burr award by the National Geographic Society for their work during the National Geographic Society-Smithsonian Institution Expedition to the East Indies in 1937. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Call no. LC-H22-D- 3997.

Finding Lucile Mann: Tropical Fish and Zoological History

While Lucile Mann’s contributions to zoological history have often been reduced to her work raising infant animals, her work with the National Zoo and resulting publications demonstrate that her legacy should be reexamined.

When Planet Earth’s David Attenborough was a mere eight years old, a guidebook was published about tropical fish care that brought the work of the National Zoo to American homes. Perhaps an unassuming topic in today’s world where movies such as Finding Nemo are blockbuster hits, keeping tropical fish in the early 20th century was highly irregular. Perhaps even more unassuming was the book’s author: a woman with no formal education in zoology or animal science.

When Lucile Mann published Tropical Aquarium Fishes in 1934, she did so with a level of hesitation. She asked her husband, Dr. William Mann, director of the National Zoo from 1925-1956, “…isn’t this the silliest thing you ever saw, they want me to write a book on tropical fish. I don’t know enough to write a book.” 

Lucile Mann, dressed in high socks, boots, and slacks, stands next to her husband in British Guiana

Culturally perceived as delicate, emotional, and noncompetitive, women did not fit into the machismo, rugged, and evermore professionalized scientific community of the early 20th century. Mann, working in this period of extreme exclusion, certainly faced an uphill battle. But her keen use of her husband’s position in the scientific community earned her entree where even the most highly educated women scientists could not go. She accompanied her husband on expeditions around the world while he worked for the National Zoo, though she herself would not hold a formal position with the Institution until 1951. Moreover, Mann took this access and shared it with the public—using the knowledge and experiences she gained to write books for a popular audience.

A group of men present an award to Lucile Mann and her husband in the form of a rolled-up scroll.

Tropical Aquarium Fishes is an excellent example of Mann’s mastery of public-facing prose. Her attention to detail took what was at the time a very new trend in pet ownership—tropical fish—and broke it down into an accessible yet engaging set of nine chapters. Her words provided even the greenest fish owner the tools needed for success. Perhaps what is most successful about Mann’s guidebook, aside from the fact that it was in print for over forty years and boasts multiple editions, was her ability to take the seemingly drab topic of fish care and make it poetic—bringing readers on the adventures she experienced in the field at the same time as it educated them about fish care. 

A photo of the cover of the 1977 edition of Tropical Aquarium Fishes, now titled Tropical Fish. The

Yet, despite Mann’s contributions to zoology, and particularly her contributions to the public’s engagement with it, she has largely been left out of the historiography of the American zoo. When she has been mentioned, it has often been in the context of her natural maternal urges as a woman, which made her a good candidate to rear baby animals. But Mann’s gripping way with words in Tropical Aquarium Fishes, which would surely turn even the most skeptical reader into a fish lover, as well as her other books, diaries, and oral histories, demonstrate that she was so much more than the stereotype that so many women faced in her time, and continue to face today.  

Lucile Mann sits with a tiger cub on her lap as she feeds it a bottle.

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