Women In Museum History: Francesca LaMonte

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Assistant Curator of Ichthyology Francesca Lamonte, who worked at the Museum from 1920 to 1962, was Ernest Hemingway’s go-to fish authority and, according to a 1952 edition of The Long Island Press, a “general big-game whiz bang.”

Francesca LaMonte crouches on wooden floor next to a dead fish and holds up the ovaries of a swordfish.
Francesca LaMonte weighs the ovaries of a swordfish caught off the coast of Chile in 1940. 

LaMonte joined the Museum two years out of college, beginning her career translating scientific papers from French, German, Italian, Spanish, and Russian into English before being promoted to curator nine years later. During her time at the Museum, LaMonte became one of the world’s leading experts on big game fish and was a key player in the founding of the International Game Fish Association (IGFA), a group dedicated to game fish conservation and responsible sport-fishing. The IGFA, which had its first home here at the Museum, still exists today.

As both a curator and member of IGFA, LaMonte participated in a number of ichthyological expeditions. Her specialty was game fish like marlins and swordfish, species about which she published numerous scientific papers. LaMonte was also a prolific writer of game-fishing guides that were acclaimed best-sellers amongst the angling set,and penned vivid accounts of Museum expeditions. In a 1940 issue of Natural History, she described a trip to collect swordfish off of northern Chile:

Just three days through the air from the heat of a Miami June, and we are in the chill of a West Coast winter. Two fishing boats stand in the harbor of Tocopilla waiting for our expedition. All around them the water is alive with anchovies, and the neighboring boats are obscured by flocks of birds swooping down to feed on the small blue-and-silver fishes.
Francesca LaMonte, Assistant Curator of Ichthyology at the American Museum of Natural History
Assistant Curator of Ichthyology Francesca LaMonte at the American Museum of Natural History.

LaMonte’s work as a scientist and writer earned her admiration from some literary lions. Ernest Hemingway and Western novelist Zane Grey deeply respected LaMonte as an authority on fishing methods and records. When Hemingway bungled a bit of natural history in The Old Man and the Sea by having the protagonist immediately identify his marlin adversary as a male—a feat that would have been nearly impossible short of a dissection—LaMonte called him out on this bit of literary license.   

Lamontichthys filamentosus, an armored catfish
Lamontichthys filamentosus, an armored catfish whose genus name honors Francesca LaMonte.
Creative Commons image courtesy of Check List

LaMonte’s name has been immortalized in a genus of South American armored catfishes—Lamontichthys—and her life’s work has proven invaluable to modern conservation efforts to protect saltwater species.