Rodolphe Meyer de Schauensee (1901-1984)

Rodolphe Meyer de Schauensee

Simply put, the ornithology collection at the Academy of Natural Sciences is Rodolphe Meyer de Schauensee. He came to the Academy in 1926, was Curator for nearly 50 years and, during that time, at his instigation, over 80,000 specimens were added to the collection, one third of the total. Meyer de Schauensee personally collected, or financed the collecting of 25,000 of these specimens. He described over 400 new species of birds from the Academy and other museum collections. Integral to the amassing of South American specimens, he cemented the Academy’s reputation as housing the finest collection of Andean birds in the world.

Meyer de Schauensee, known at his insistence as Rudy, actively participated in collecting expeditions to Burma, Thailand, Bali, Namibia and Guatemala, often accompanied by his wife, the former Williamina Wentz of Philadelphia and funded numerous trips to New Guinea and China. His ornithological interests spanned the world, greatly broadening the diversity of the collection. For his extraordinary accomplishments in the field of ornithology, Rodolphe Meyer de Schauensee was awarded the prestigious Brewster Medal by the American Ornithologists Union in 1977. In addition, he received the medal of the Congreso Iberoamericano de Ornitologia in 1983. Of course, the greatest honor that can be paid an ornithologist is to have a new species named after you.  Rudy has six bird species named in his honor. Remarkably, the breadth of his biological interests also led to having three fish species, one snake species and two insect species named, by appreciative scientists, to honor him.

His bird collections have had great impact on past studies and contemporary research. Their depth promise continued influence in the future. When Meyer de Schauensee assembled this impressive series of specimens, their primary uses were in the description of new species (many hundreds), the publication of regional lists (uncountable), guides to the world’s birds (dozens), and studies in the higher-level relationships of birds (thousands). The specimens collected during his tenure are still much used in modern scientific studies. In recent years, these skins, in some cases collected from habitats that are no longer intact, have been used in complex DNA-based studies of bird evolution and in micronutrient analyses of historical environmental conditions. New bird taxa are still being described from these collections, including a new genus of hummingbird.

No one else in the long history of the Academy, which began in 1812, epitomized and contributed so much to the Ornithology Department.

To the international ornithological world, Rudy was the author of over 120 scientific articles and six major books: The Birds of the Republic of Columbia (1948-1952), The Species of Birds of South America (1966), A Guide to the Birds of South America (1970), A Guide to the Birds of Venezuela and The Birds of China (1984).  He amassed an encyclopedic knowledge of the ornithological literature, aided by his fluency in English, Italian, French and Portuguese.

Born in Rome, he spent childhood summers in Lucerne in the sort of castle you build in your most Romantic imagination. Meyer de Schauensee’s intense interest in birds and other aspects of the natural world was ignited there. His family comprised his father, Frederick Meyer de Schauensee, a Swiss baron, his mother, the former Matilda Toland of Philadelphia, and his brother Maximillian who became Philadelphia’s premier classical music critic, writing for the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin.  Rudy’s passion for birdlife included maintaining an aviary of tropical species at his mother’s Wynnewood house, according to Dillon Ripley.

Rodolphe Meyer de Schauensee’s interest in collecting wasn’t limited to birds. On an expedition to Africa in 1930, he obtained 104 fish for the Academy, including three new species. He also brought back 2,043 freshwater fish, and four new species, from Guatemala in 1935, the first collection of fishes from Guatemala the Academy had received. When collecting in Brazil in 1926 with James Bond (with whom he would work in tandem at the Academy for the next 50 years), he brought back some live specimens for the Philadelphia Zoo. The Dark-spotted Anaconda among them turned out to be a new species that was named in his honor, Eunectes deschauenseei.

Rudy had an incredibly discerning eye. Here’s his description of Ptilinopus merilli merilli, an immature, female specimen of a rare Philippine dove in the Academy’s collection.

"Entire upper surface except forehead bronzy green, changing according to the light from deep blue-green to coppery green; crown somewhat paler, forehead pale grayish green. Chin and upper throat white, sides of head, lower throat, neck and breast bluish green with a distinct grayish cast, the grayish green of the breast sharply defined from the buffy yellowish ventral region by a band of metallic green of the same color as the upper surface. Flanks, side of body, metallic green. Wings as in the adult but lacking the patch of garnet-brown, and edges to the secondaries not decomposed. Axillaries and wing lining rufous-chestnut.” (Notulae Naturae of the Academy of Natural Sciences 1957, No. 303, p. 4).

The eye that distinguished between garnet-brown and rufous-chestnut also rejoiced in nineteenth and early twentieth century paintings, 17th century French silver, Indian art and collecting orchids. He and his wife donated works by Renoir, Gauguin and Van Gogh, as well as Brancusi’s iconic sculpture “Mademoiselle Pogany (1912)” to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, in addition to a number of striking Indian sculptures.

The same aesthetic sense that valued exquisite craftsmanship led him to hire professional collectors who produced fine museum specimens and provided the detailed capture data which is critical to the further research use of the specimens.

So, in one aspect, Rodolphe Meyer de Schauensee was an adventurer who also relished the excitement innate to being a champion backgammon player and racetrack aficionado. In another aspect, he was an eminently civilized and aesthetically sophisticated man. A third aspect of him, the one known best at the Academy was the dedicated, prolific and deeply knowledgeable scientist.  But, it was the integration of all these facets of his personality and mind that profoundly influenced the Ornithology Department and the Academy. Rodolphe Meyer de Schauensee emphatically made the Academy a world leader in ornithology.