Peters, James Arthur, 1922-1972

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Biographical History

James A. Peters (1922-1972) was born in Durant, Iowa, July 13, 1922. He developed an interest in herpetology as a teenager, which culminated in the acquisition of three academic degrees from the University of Michigan (B.S., 1948; M.A., 1950; Ph.D., 1952). While at the University of Michigan he served as a research assistant in the Museum of Zoology (1946-1952) and as a teaching assistant for the Department of Zoology (1952). After receiving his Ph.D., Peters joined the staff of Brown University (1952-1958), advancing from instructor to assistant professor. During the summer of 1956 he was a research associate at Stanford University. From 1958 to 1959 Peters was a Fulbright Lecturer at the Universidad Centrale de Ecuador; he was a visiting professor at Southern Illinois University for the summer of 1959 and accepted an associate professorship at San Fernando Valley State College (SFVSC) in the fall of that year. Peters advanced to full professor at SFVSC, remaining there until February 1964 when he accepted the position of associate curator in the Division of Reptiles and Amphibians of the United States National Museum. He assumed the title "supervisor and curator" of the Division in FY 1967, a title he held until FY 1971. He was named curator, Division of Reptiles and Amphibians in FY 1971 and held that position until his death on December 18, 1972. James A. Peters' professional responsibilities included membership in many scientific societies. He attended his first meeting of the American Society of Icthyologists and Herpetologists (ASIH) in 1939. He later served on the Board of Governors and various committees. He also served as ASIH secretary (1960-1966); vice-president (1967); and president (1970). He also held advisory or elected positions with the Society of Systematic Zoology, the Southern California Academy of Sciences, the Society for the Study of Evolution, and the Biological Society of Washington. Within the Smithsonian Peters continued his professional responsibilities by service on the Zoo Research Advisory Committee (National Zoological Park), the Planning Committee for Summer Seminar in Systematics, the Steering Committee for the First International Congress of Systematic Zoology, the International Congress of Systematic and Evolutionary Biology, the Reptile Group of the Survival Service Commission of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the American Alligator Council, and the Rare and Endangered Species Committee of the Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife. In 1965 he inaugurated the Smithsonian Herpetological Information Services, which distributed informative material deemed useful to herpetologists but unsuitable for publication, e.g., bibliographies, indices, etc. The herpetology and zoogeography of Latin America became main subjects of interest for Peters after he did field work on the Mexican Plateau in 1949 and in Michoacan in 1950. His concentration on Ecuador was largely due to the wide scope of biogeographical faunal comparisons available in the Andes Mountains. While completing his doctoral work on the snakes of the subfamily Dipsadinae, he embarked in 1952 upon a long-term research project on the herpetology of Ecuador that resulted in twenty-one published papers. The culmination of his Latin American work was the two-volume Catalogue of the Neotropical Squamata co-authored with Braulio Orjas-Miranda and Roberto Donoso-Barrios (1970). Over 100 scientific publications are attributed to James A. Peters, including two books, Classic Papers in Genetics (ed., 1959) and Dictionary of Herpetology (1964). He described seventeen new species or subspecies and had five taxa, four Neotropical amphibians and reptiles, and one snake named for him. The computer analysis of biogeographic data greatly enhanced Peters' study of the systematics and ecology of reptiles and amphibians. An effective use of this technique was the gathering of comparative cardiac physiology of Ecuadorian snakes and lizards using data obtained from an electrocardiograph. Identification of specimens was another field adaptable to the use of computer technology. In this area of interest Peters developed computer programs that facilitated the identification process by searching on a larger constellation of characters than had previously been employed. Eleven papers were published from 1968 to 1973 on the subject of computer usage. He also founded the newsletter MUDPIE (Museum and University Data Program and Information Exchange) which contained information about computer programs, references, grants, meetings, and related news.

Related entities

United States National Museum: He worked in the Division of Reptiles and Amphibians of the United States National Museum.

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  • Zoology
  • Herpetologists


Personal name


  • Herpetologists
  • Zoologists