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.
> pg 2
More Expedition Readings
(click images for larger view)
James Paul Chapin
Aboard the SS Leopoldville
Chapin in the Congo