WWII: Collecting and Interpreting the War
Not only did the Smithsonian research in Washington, D.C., inform the course of World War II, the war also shaped the collections and research of the Smithsonian. Military medical staff sent thousands of specimens of disease carrying insects to the museum for identification. Soldiers stationed in far-flung locations provided the Smithsonian with collecting opportunities that otherwise would have taken years to organize and secure funding. Rather than let this opportunity go to waste, Smithsonian scientists coordinated with the armed forces to have soldiers collect specimens for the Smithsonian. The Smithsonian recruited enlisted men to join a vast collecting network in the Pacific that further strengthened the Smithsonian’s expertise in the region. To further these efforts and aid the many amateur scientists in the field, the Smithsonian published A Field Collector’s Manual in Natural History.1 Thanks to the work of the many soldiers who served as collectors for the Smithsonian and Smithsonian staff in the museum, the Smithsonian is a powerhouse in Pacific studies, and holds the preeminent collections from the region to this day.
Soldiers Collecting for SI
The Smithsonian reached out to natural history enthusiasts who enlisted in the armed forces and were willing to collect in their free time. Soldiers like Sammy Ray, a pharmacist’s mate in the Pacific theater, did not leave their enthusiasm for natural history at home when they shipped out with the US Navy. Through contacts he made while studying biology at Louisiana State University, he was introduced to Alexander Wetmore, then Director of the National Museum, and corresponded with him throughout the war.2 The two shared a passion for ornithology, and Wetmore encouraged Sammy Ray to collect bird specimens on the various islands where he was stationed. Collecting in a war zone had many challenges: finding enough ammunition, getting permission to shoot behind the lines, skinning and preserving the specimens he captured, and finding ways to ship them back to the Smithsonian; but collecting gave Ray something to do in his personal time and helped take his mind off the stresses of war.
Ray sent many specimens back to Wetmore that are still in the collection today.3 He and other soldiers’ collecting in the Pacific gave Smithsonian scientists the ability to better understand the birds of the Pacific in ways that would have been nearly impossible without their help. Though the war brought chaos and destruction to the Pacific, the scientists at the Smithsonian and the soldiers they worked with turned this tragic world war into an opportunity to further scientific research and increase our knowledge about the natural world.
A Field Collectors Manual in Natural History
To further the work of these avid collectors and in the hopes of recruiting more soldiers, the Smithsonian published A Field Collectors Manual in Natural History. Covering everything an amateur collector would need to know, the manual helped make sure the specimens that reached the Smithsonian were properly collected, prepared, and shipped.4 With instructions about how to collect specimens, from selecting which birds, insects, rocks or plants to collect to how to properly label them; the field guide was meant to be an introduction to natural history collecting as much as an aid to already avid collectors.
Even if a soldier had not previously been interested in natural history, Smithsonian staff hoped to recruit new collectors stationed in occupied areas.5 Young men with nothing else to do could be a significant collecting force for the Smithsonian; strengthening the museum’s already prominent Pacific collections. Wetmore asked Harry Dorsey, his Administrative Assistant, to send copies of the manual to Herbert Deignan, Associate Curator in the Division of Birds, while he was stationed in Ceylon with the Office of Strategic Services. Deignan might have been using these copies for his own ornithological collecting, or he might have been making connections and recruiting collectors among the men he worked with.
Many of the men serving in our armed forces who have been sent to all parts of the world have a keen interest in the animals, plants, rocks, and other objects about them, and, as their duties permit, find recreation in examining them.
Departments and divisions across the Natural History Museum gained thousands of objects and specimens from soldiers. From one hundred bird specimens from the Admiralty Islands, to echinoderms from Biak, the Smithsonian collections gained new materials and added depth from the efforts of soldiers and sailors throughout the Pacific.
By the close of the war, the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum housed the largest and most diverse Pacific natural history collection in the world and became a center for the study of Pacific natural history, thanks in part to the efforts of GIs.
- War Correspondents, Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- A Field Collector’s Guide to Natural History, Smithsonian Libraries
- United States National Museum Permanent Administrative Files, 1877-1975, RU 000192, Box 55
- RU 009628 Sammy Ray Oral History Interviews – not yet digitized
1 Pamela Henson “Smithsonian Goes to War,” in Science and the Pacific War: science and survival in the Pacific, 1939-1945, Roy M. MacLeod (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 2000), 39. Return to text
2 Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 9628, Ray, Sammy interviewee, Oral History Interviews with Sammy Ray Return to text
3 Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 9628, Ray, Sammy interviewee, Oral History Interviews with Sammy Ray Return to text
4 Pamela Henson “Smithsonian Goes to War,” in Science and the Pacific War: science and survival in the Pacific, 1939-1945, Roy M. MacLeod (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 2000), 39. Return to text