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James Paul Chapin (1889-1964)

by Gordy Slack

James Paul Chapin was born only a few blocks from the American Museum of Natural History. At the age of 16, fresh out of high school, he took a job mounting birds in the museum's Preparatory Department. It was the beginning of an illustrious, 59-year-long scientific career at the museum.

As a youth, Chapin spent his time documenting natural history. In 1892, his family had moved from Manhattan to Staten Island, where the teenager made friends with the local high school principal, an amateur birder. The mentor gave Chapin a copy of Frank Chapman's classic book, Birdlife, and loaned him Chapman's Handbook of North American Birds. In his early teens Chapin was an active member of the Natural Science Association of Staten Island and a frequent contributor to its newsletter. From his earliest years as a naturalist, Chapin had a talent for scientific illustration. As he matured, his knack became an art that vividly illustrated much of his fieldwork and published studies.

By the time he came to work for the American Museum, Chapin was already focused on ornithology. But in addition to preparing bird specimens, sorting them for duplicates, and cleaning their glass eyes, he also worked in the Department of Mammals, writing catalog numbers on bones.

In 1908, when Herbert Lang was chosen to lead an American Museum expedition to the Congo, Chapin was a junior studying biology at Columbia University. Lang asked Chapin, then a part-time volunteer at the museum, if he wanted to come along as an assistant and second in command. The 19-year-old Chapin later said he "didn't think twice" before taking the job.

Though the Congo expedition had been expected to last two years, Lang and Chapin were in Africa for six, returning to New York in 1915. The Congo was an extraordinary place to cut one's teeth as a young naturalist, and Chapin rose to the challenges and opportunities it presented. Based on their thorough surveys of the fauna of the northeastern Congo, fifteen volumes of scientific findings were eventually published documenting the specimens they brought home. Four of those, together titled Birds of the Belgian Congo, were by Chapin. This work fixed his place among the great ornithologists of the twentieth century. When he returned to New York in 1915, Chapin finished his undergraduate degree at Columbia and went on to earn his doctorate there in 1919.

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More Expedition Readings

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AMNH # 32298, portrait of James Chapin

James Paul Chapin

AMNH # ls4124, Chapin about S.S. Leopoldville

Aboard the SS Leopoldville

Chapin in the Congo

Chapin in the Congo