Charles William Beebe's nickname was Will and he is most famous for his world record descent in the Bathysphere with Otis Barton on August 15, 1934. Will also wrote popular books about his exploring experiences working for the New York Zoological Park (Bronx Zoo). He used the name C. William Beebe in early books and articles.
Will was born July 29, 1877 in Brooklyn, New York. His father Charles was a dealer of paper and was often away on business. Will's mother was Henrietta aka "Nettie" Younglove and she was the homemaker. Will's father often brought back gifts for his son, even a real life owl.
The Beebe family moved a few times and eventually settled for the remainder of Will's childhood at 73 Ashland Avenue in East Orange, New Jersey. Will loved both his parents very much and was their only son. The Beebe family had another child, but he died. The entire family was very interested in nature and thus Will literally grew up as a naturalist. The family often took the Elevated Railroad to New York to attend popular natural history lectures at the American Museum of Natural History (lecture hall below).
Will spent most of his spare time outdoors, exploring his neighborhood, the near by Orange Mountains, Morris Canal and other places around East Orange. He collected anything and everything. He eventually got his own rifle and was able to collect fresh animals to skin and stuff.
Socially, he liked going to parties with friends and enjoyed dancing. When he got a camera he made his own slides and sold them to employees at the Museum. In September of 1891 Will started East Orange High School. He was very proud of the school and as an alumnus, did much to improve it.
First Publication - Harper's Young People
Will's first published article was a letter to the editor of Harper's Young People magazine about his observations of the Brown Creeper bird. It was published in the January 15, 1895 issue. Almost every day Will was outdoors adding to his collections of birds eggs, fossils and skins. His ever increasing knowledge of natural history, his self-learned skill in taxidermy and enthusiasm led him to down a direct path as a naturalist. And to a friendship with the Museum's president, Henry Fairfield Osborn.
College Studies at Columbia University
Will enrolled at Columbia University (below) in New York where Osborn was also a professor. Will enrolled as a Special Student because he was so far ahead of normal students. He took advanced classes from 1896 to 1899.
According to Henry Welker's biography on Beebe, "Natural Man," there is no proof that Beebe ever got credit for the work experience. For years Will would tell people he had indeed graduated from Columbia.
According to Lee S. Crandall, Will told him that Professor Osborn's opinion was to the effect that a year in the Zoological Park could be more valuable than one of formal courses. And that is what had tipped the balance and led Will to leaving his studies at Columbia to start work at the new zoo.Early "Who's Who" books noted that he has received a B.S. degree. In fact, recent publications continue to cite the degree in biographies of Beebe. However, it is reported in "The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography (1965)," that in 1928, Beebe was awarded honorary Doctorate in Science degrees by Tufts College and Colgate University.
First Job as Assistant Curator of Birds at the Bronx Zoo
Will spent the summer of 1899 honing his Natural History field experience in Nova Scotia. He and his family often spent the summers there on vacation. As the century was coming to an end, Professor Osborn was planning the opening of the New York Zoological Park (Bronx Zoo). With his formal education at Columbia combined with his self-taught initiative of field studies, taking his own nature photographs and taxidermy skills, Will was offered the position of Assistant Bird Keeper at the new Zoological Park. But he still had to interview for the job with the Park's imposing Director, William T. Hornaday.
On October 4, 1899 Osborn took him to meet Hornaday who was very impressed that the young Beebe had learned taxidermy having himself written a book about the subject.
Twenty-two year-old Assistant Curator of Birds Beebe began working at the Park October 16, 1899. He loved riding around on his bicycle which he called his "Wheel." (The Zoo's Bird House is on the left.)
This period was very hectic, because they were getting ready to open the Park on November 8th of that year. Will was extremely proud of his office in the Bird House and of his new social and financial status. He even had his own employee. He bestowed lavish gifts upon his family and friends; even giving one of his lady friends a pianola. He was very active socially.
Curator of Birds
In 1902, now Full Curator of Birds, Will had great success raising and keeping the birds. His biggest success seems to be that very few birds actually died while under his care, as opposed to the mammal keeper who was suspended because so many of his animals had died.
At the zoo, Will was conducting experiments on bird embryoes and was preparing a book manuscript about his experiences as a bird curator. Blair helped transcribe, type and proofread his materials.
Will was also writing articles and taking his own photographs for the New York Zoological Society's monthly newsletter "Bulletin" (later known as "Animal Kingdom"), as well as articles for popular magazines and newspapers like the Ladies Home Journal and the Sunday edition of the New York Times.
In 1908 Lee S. Crandall came to work at the zoo and under Will.
"I first met Will Beebe in 1908 when, as a callow student of Zoological Garden practice, I came under his tutelage." wrote Crandall. "To say that I learned much from him would be not only trite but inadequate. He was a severe task master and expected everyone associated with him not only to work as indefatigably as he himself did, but to adhere to his high scientific standards."
"These seemed entirely beyond my reach and I could only struggleas best I could. Tall, thin, and vigorous, he enjoyed tennis and in his younger days played a strong game. For occasional relaxation, he lost himself in the mazes of uncounted "whodunits."
(From Crandall's obituary salute to Will published in the January 1964 issue of The Auk, "In Memoriam: Charles William Beebe."
First Marriage to Mary Blair Rice
Blair was from a well-to-do family with roots from the Colonial days. Blair's grandfather, Roger Atkinson Pryor (July 19, 1828 – March 14, 1919) had been a Confederate General during the Civil War and was then a Supreme Court Judge in New York. (Wikipedia article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roger_Pryor )
Blair's grandmother Sara Agnes Rice was a noted author herself ("The Mother of Washington and her Times" (1903), "Reminiscences of Peace and War" (1904), "The Birth of the Nation" (1907), and "My Day: Reminiscences of a Long Life" (1909). (In 2002, author John C. Waugh published his book about the Pryor's called "Surviving the Confederacy: Rebellion, Ruin, and Recovery-Roger and Sara Pryor during the Civil War." It provides a wealth of information about Blair's grandparents and her mother Marie Gordon Rice, who was also a writer.
Blair later wrote in her book "Journeys in Time" that growing up she lived a sheltered life. She enjoyed spending time in the plantation's library, reading books by Jane Austin, Dickens, Thoreau, Hugo and Tolstoy. She also enjoyed passing time in the kitchen, talking with the African-American help. The family used to own slaves, but they now were employed as servants.
Despite misgivings of an over-protective Nettie, on August 6th of 1902, Will married Blair at sunrise at her family's plantation "The Oaks" in Virginia. The wedding announcement was front page news in the New York Times, "Wedded At Sunrise 'Mid Dew-Kissed Lilies."
Word has it that several of the wedding party guests were a tad cranky having to wake up so early for the sunrise ceremony. The article called Blair "one of the most beautiful young women in the state."
They spent their honeymoon in Nova Scotia where they were joined by Blair's new mother-in-law. Back in New York the newly married couple resided in the upstairs floor of Will and Nettie's old apartment; Nettie lived on the bottom floor.
The Bird: It's Form and Function
This book is Beebe's first technical book, a 100% scientific examination of the bird. Some chapters appeared in Outing, Bird-Lore and the New York Evening Post. Beebe dedicates it to his former teacher at Columbia University, Professor Henry Fairfield Osborn.
The book also contains Will's famous quote: "The beauty and genius of a work of art may be reconceived, though its first material expression be destroyed; a vanished harmony may yet again inspire the composer; but when the last individual of a race of living things breathes no more, another heaven and another earth must pass before such a one can be again."
Two Bird Lovers in Mexico
Will dedicates the book to his wife, "the other bird lover." Blair had never ridden horseback before, but the entire trip was spent riding horseback. The volcano Colima was erupting and causing earthquakes during their stay. Blair wrote the last chapter of the book, "How We Did It," offering advice to future female adventurers:
"To the woman who is courageous enough to defy the expostulations of her friends and to undertake a camping trip to Mexico, let me say that I congratulate her on having before her one of the most unique and fascinating experiences of her life; that is if she goes in the proper spirit. And the proper spirit is to be interested in everything and to have one's mind firmly made up to ignore small discomforts," she wrote.
"What a glorious thing is a cold plunge in early morning in the swift-flowing river near the tent, where the night before the deer drank, and along which all the furtive wild creatures of the night stealthily made their way in the moonlight. Here one feels how good a thing it is to be alive, to be hungry and to eat, to be weary and to sleep."
Will wrote, "There is one joy of reading, another of painting, and another of writing, but none to compare with the thrill which comes to one who, loving Nature in all her moods, is about to start on a voyage of discovery to a land familiar in dreams alone."
"Pausing a moment, on the narrow summit of the dividing cliff, we watch the dull glow above the crater of the volcano. It is quiet now, after a few days of more than usual activity. Its lurid reflection is the wildest touch in this landscape of black chasms and shadowless plains. A strange cry comes from some bird of the night high overhead, and as we are about to resume our way, a muffled sound comes from the great barranca far to our left,-a sonorous growling roar which rises to a scream,-cut short off. It has been described to us by some American miners, and now we know it instantly for the cry of the jaguar, a sound new to us and setting every nerve a-quiver with love of the wilderness,-above which, afterall, is but slightly 'sicklied o'er' with a veneer of our civilization. Few of us are without this feeling."
Our Search for a Wilderness
On the second trip they took Mr. Lee S. Crandall. Crandall later became Beebe's replacement as Curator of Birds when Beebe's duties took him away from the zoological park for long durations. On this trip, Crandall assisted in trapping and getting the natives involved in bird collecting. The team was responsible for assembling 300 living birds of 51 species which were brought to the zoological park. Small mammals and reptiles were also collected.
The Beebes dedicate their book to Blair's grandparents, Judge and Mrs. Roger A. Pryor.
They encountered the Hoatzin bird on this trip. The babies have a claw at the end of their wings which helps them climb around branches on their nesting trees (below left). When alarmed, the Hoatzin babies drop into the water from their nests overhanging the water. They then use the claws to climb back up their tree, returning to their nest and safety. They later loose the claws.
At first all was easy going, but as I ascended I broke off numerous dead twigs and from the broken stub of each issued a horde of black stinging ants. These hastened my ascent and at last I made my way out on the swaying upper branches."
On the second trip Blair's hammock broke and she fell seven feet to the ground and broke her wrist. Her reaction: "Oh! We can't get the Hoatzins!"
Beebe on ants: "Until one becomes accustomed to these scenes of carnage the sight is really terrible, especially when one lies down flat and takes an ant's-eye view of the field of battle. Yet such is the fierceness and savage fury on one side and hopeless terror or frantic efforts to escape on the part of the victims that it needs but little imagination to stir deeply one's sympathies.
Blair on her trip: "One realized as never before with what handicaps woman has tried to follow the footsteps of man; with the result that physical exhaustion has robbed her of all the joys of life in the open."
Beebe: "We spent ten days at the Aremu Mine, and it speaks well for the working possibilities of this region that I was able to rise at five o'clock in the morning and with intervals only for means, keep up steady work--exploring, photographing and skinning until ten o'clock at night, when usually the last skin would be rolled up or the last note written. I would then tumble, happy and dead tired, into bed and know nothing until the low signal of our Indian hunter summoned me into the dusk of the following morning. I worked harder than I ought to have done even in our northern countries and yet felt no ill effects."
Beebe's concluding paragraph: "...the thought of that vast continent, as yet almost untouched by real scientific research; the supreme joy of learning, of discovering, of adding our tiny facts to the foundation of the everlasting why of the universe; all this makes life for us-Milady and me-one never-ending delight."
It seems that at the time there was no definitive study of pheasants in their natural haunts. Hornaday didn't want to lose his top bird curator and thought that Beebe was well on his way to becoming a first-rate ornithologist. The expedition was supposed to be only four months in duration, but Hornaday realized that the expedition would probably take up to two years and then there would be a year or so in addition that Beebe would spend in researching and writing the monograph.
Hornaday wrote a letter to the society's director, Madison Grant declaring that Beebe, by leaving on the pheasant expedition, was going to throw away his promising ornithologist career. Hornaday told Grant and Osborn that Beebe was just a plaything for the wealthy Kuser and that if Beebe left on the trip, Kuser would be known as the Evil Genius of the park. Hornaday forbid his going and threatened to end his friendly relations with Beebe. Hornaday told Beebe that when he returned, he would no longer have a job and told Grant that he would fill his position with someone else who he could depend on.http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:William_Hornaday.jpg )
When Beebe would later returned as the hero, Hornaday welcomed him back with open arms and Beebe became Honorary Curator of Birds. But Hornaday's protestations were only to Grant and Osborn and he never made public any of his mumblings he made before Beebe left.
On December 26, 1909 Beebe and Blair sailed from New York harbor on board the Lusitania to begin a 17-month-long "Kuser-Beebe" expedition to the Far East. The Beebes traveled about 52,000 miles and visited 22 countries (UK, Egypt, Ceylon, India, Sikkim, Burma, the Yunnan Province in China, the Malay States, Java, Borneo and Japan).
In Borneo as they were about to enter the interior, a white settler told Blair to watch out for head-hunters. Apparently, Blair was the first white woman to travel into the interior. In hindsight, they didn't have anything to worry about from the natives who were only to happy to earn money by catching the pheasants and other animals for the Beebe party. The Beebes were even invited to a special native ceremony in their honor.
"From high overhead in the tracery of foliage came a low chuckle. Probably no sound in the world could have affected me as that. It meant that somewhere near by was a roosting pheasant. And it was to find this that I had come half round the world. I was to become intimate with these birds that I had traversed the fiery Plains and had penetrated deep into the heart of this wilderness - these Hills of Hills."
After circumnavigating the globe and returning to New York on May 27, 1911, Will wrote, that the trip "left him with a decidedly pessimistic outlook as regards even to the more immediate future of these splendid birds. I realized that even if I repeated the trip at once, there were some which I should not be able to see again." ("The Evolution and Destruction of Life," Scientific American Supplement No. 2234, Oct. 26, 1918).
(Will and Blair view Mount Everest)
After the trip, Will traveled with Blair to England, Holland and other countries spending three months of 1912 in Europe researching various museums for the monograph. A mutual friend, Robert Niles, joined them on the trip and Blair spent much time with him while Will was buried in libraries and research.
Robert or "Robbie" was an architect and casual photographer. He was the nephew of William White Niles who was a promenant civic leader in New York as well as a member of the Zoological Society's executive committee. But there was to be no "domestic bliss" for the Beebes. After their return from Europe, Will and Blair had domestic problems and tried unsuccessfully to make a go of their marriage.
A Monograph of the Pheasants
When it was released, the result of the Beebe's research became the four-volume set called "A Monograph of the Pheasants." It contains more than a half million words, all typed by Blair after the trip. Only 250 copies of the set were made. The finest nature artists of the time, like Fuertez, Thorburn, Elliot, Gould and others were tasked with illustrating the pheasants in their native habitats. The first volume, published in London, came out in 1918. Publication on the remaining volumes was halted due to World War One.
A more popular account of the expedition was later published in 1927 as "Pheasant Jungles," but by then Will had edited the book to make it look like Blair had taken no part in the expedition. Other variations became "Pheasants Their Lives and Homes" which was published in two volumes in 1926 as well as in one volume in 1936. Many years later Dover reprinted the Monograph into four volumes.
In early January of 1913 Blair fled to Nevada to begin a six-month residency requirement for a divorce. It was very bitter and public because of Beebe's celebrity as an author. The front page of the New York Times read "Naturalist Was Cruel."
The day after the divorce, Blair married her and Will's once mutual friend and neighbor Robert Niles. She became Blair Niles which she used also as her pen name. She went on to success and fame, writing travel books and articles. Robert took the photographs for the books.
Her book "Condemned to Devil's Island" was made into a film, one of the early black and white "talkies." Her articles on the Devil's Island Penal Colony were published as a series in the New York Times.
Unfortunately she was one of the many people who lost all of their money in the Stock Market fall of 1929.
Blair Helps Found the Society of Woman Geographers
In 1926 Blair helped found of a new exploration club for ladies, the Society of Woman Geographers. At that time in American history, clubs like the Explorer's Club refused admittance to females.
According to wikipedia the club was "organized by four friends Gertrude Emerson Sen, Marguerite Harrison, Blair Niles and Gertrude Mathews Shelby, to bring together women interested in geography, world exploration, anthropology and related fields. Membership was restricted to women who had "done distinctive work whereby they have added to the world's store of knowledge concerning the countries on which they have specialized, and have published in magazines or in book form a record of their work."
Zoological Park's First Field Research Station
Will continued to write popular books about his journeys and scientific explorations, using royalties to augment funding for research.
In January 1916, he established the Park's first field research station, situated in Kalacoon, British Guiana.
Despite Hornaday's earlier threats to fire him, Will held the title of Honorary Curator of Birds.
In 1917, World War One was going on, and despite being of advanced age, Beebe wrote in "Jungle Peace," that he enrolled with the French Aviation Service. There is some controversy as to what exactly occurred during that time period.
In 1925 he was on the cover of the "Mentor Magazine." Articles and photographic accounts of his travels were published in popular newspapers and magazines world-wide. It seemed everyone was reading his popular books and wanted to know about the latest "discovery" or "adventure." He was becoming very famous and his every exploits and adventures were avidly followed by the public. Many if not all of his books were translated and published in other languages.
When not adventuring across the globe, Will made extra money by giving public lectures with his own slide shows. He used the money from the lectures and books royalties to help fund his expeditions as the Zoological Park seemed not to provide enough money for his needs.
He attracted the attention of a young novelist named Elswyth Thane Ricker (May 16, 1900 – July 1984), who was almost 25 years his junior. (Wikipedia article on Thane: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elswyth_Thane ). She was born in Burlington, Iowa. In 1918 she moved to New York and changed her name from Helen Ricker to Elswyth Thane. She was on the cusp of becoming a famous author in her own right; (later witing the play "Young Mister Disraeli" and other plays and fiction and nonfiction books).
Second Marriage to Novelist Elswyth Thane Ricker
After several years of marriage, theirs became a marriage of convenience; she preferring to stay and write her books at their farm in Vermont, and Will out traveling for the zoo and hating the cold weather of northeastern United States. She wrote about their relationship in "Reluctant Farmer." (Also called "Stranger in the Hills.").
They kept in touch through letters and telegrams; their correspondence mundane and businesslike, but Will always sending her his love at the end of each letter. Each was busy researching their own books; Elswyth often in Europe, Will off in the jungle or out to sea. Will would often include candid personal photos with his letters as well as instructions on which books he needed or other things an assistant might do.
Meanwhile a young wealthy Harvard graduate Otis Barton also wanted to explore the deep sea and with his background in engineering, he designed a sphere that might do the trick. But he was afraid to approach the famous Beebe, who was known for turning away people with crazy ideas. A mutual friend arranged a meeting between Will and Otis.
In late 1928, the two men met in Will's office and the veteran explorer liked the simple design and agreed to test it out. Beebe called Barton's device a Bathysphere. They made several dives with Barton picking up the tab, to the Society's relief.
World Record Attempt
Will was famous before, but now he was a celebrity. Everyone wanted his autograph. Because of the publicity from the Bathysphere dive, many people call Beebe the "Cousteau of their generation." Other scientists mocked Beebe for his daredevil publicity stunts and his "alleged" deep sea observations while in the Bathysphere.
When Will wasn't using the sphere for deep-sea observations, Barton filmed footage for a movie he was producing and directing called "Titans of the Deep." He would send the film camera down in the Bathysphere by itself, hoping to get decent footage for his project.
Years later, Barton designed a Benthoscope which he dove solo in August of 1949 to a depth of 4,500 feet, breaking his own and Beebe's previous record.
Earlier in his life, William Beebe had used money from his book royalties to purchase the property of his research station in Bermuda (where the Bathysphere expeditions were based). During World War Two, Bermuda snatched the Beebe estate and built an airport there. However they did receive some money for the estate and in 1949, Beebe used the money to buy another estate, this one located in Trinidad. Beebe called it Simla after the mountain he saw on his Far East pheasant expedition. He later donated the entire estate and surrounding 228 acres of land to the New York Zoological Society. Nearby is a nature center called the Asa Wright Nature Centre. It is a very popular tourist attraction for bird-watchers.
Beebe became very popular and appeared on radio game shows and also was a popular photographic subject. Here is a press release photo of Frank Crilley (Navy diver), "Explorer" submarine designer Simon Lake, William Beebe and Jack Dunbar (diver). Dec 21 1932.
Retirement and Passing
Fairfield Osborn, then president of the New York Zoological Society and son of Henry Fairfield Osborn (Beebe's teacher and mentor), called William Beebe a "pioneer in the science of ecology" and wrote that Beebe possessed a "searching mind and spirit."
Beebe died at Simla on June 4, 1962. He is buried in Trinidad. His books continue to be sold and read today. Many come up for sale on the online auction "eBay." (Photo at left copyrighted by The National Geographic Society and is used with its permission.)
Obituary Salute (PDF File) - In Memoriam: Charles William Beebe (with photos) by Lee S. Crandall
The Official William Beebe Web Site is copyrighted 2000 - 2017 by Catharine L. Hines. All rights reserved. No images may be reproduced as many of them are copyrighted and are used with permission of the copyright holder. Last updated February 2017.