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Elliot's Monographs: A Magnificent Legacy

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The following excerpt from Natural Histories: Extraordinary Rare Book Selections from the American Museum of Natural History Library (Sterling Signature, 2012), edited by Tom Baione, the Museum Library’s director, highlights the role of rare 19th- and 20th-century monographs in advancing science. It was written by Joel L. Cracraft, chair of the Division of Vertebrate Zoology.

Daniel Giraud Elliot was one of the most important American ornithologists and naturalists of the nineteenth century. Despite his importance and stature, there is remarkably little recorded about his life’s details other than what he wrote and spoke about his professional life in 1914, in an unpublished reminiscence and an address to the Linnean Society of New York.

Daniel Giraud Elliot Bird of Paradise (1)
© AMNH/D. Finnin

Elliot’s professional accomplishments were anything but obscure, however. He was a scientific founder of the American Museum of Natural History in 1869, and his personal collection of North American birds included the first specimens accessioned into the Museum. Elliot made numerous trips across the globe for study and collecting, generally being away for multiple years at a time, with his longest absence being a decade.

Based on these travels, he published hundreds of papers, including multiple folio-size monographs on groups of mammals and birds.

Daniel Giraud Elliot Bird of Paradise (2)
© AMNH/D. Finnin

In his day, few, if any, of his peers had his knowledge and experience with the birds and mammals of the world. Elliot became famous as a monographer of families of birds and mammals. He synthesized previous taxonomic knowledge about the species in each group and added observations and new interpretations based on specimens housed in major museums.

Elliot’s first love was birds, and he produced large synthetic works on pittas, pheasants, grouse, hummingbirds, and birds of paradise. Along the way he also published a folio-size monograph on cats. In 1894, he moved to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago as its curator in the Department of Zoology, shifting his attention to mammals. After he left that museum in 1906, he spent the next two years traveling in Europe and Asia studying primates, both in collections and in the field.

Next, back in New York at the American Museum of Natural History, his investigations eventually culminated in his 1913 three-volume taxonomic monograph A Review of the Primates. During Elliot’s time, folio-size, lavishly illustrated scientific monographs were primarily for the well-to-do and not meant for general distribution. They were funded by the wealthy and published for them. 

Elliot did not invent the monograph—indeed, in his youth, he was influenced by the works of John James Audubon—but he elevated its importance, combining the emerging field of wildlife art with contemporary science. Illustrative of that was A Monograph of the Paradiseidae [or Birds of Paradise], published in London in 1873. It was “printed for the subscribers, by the author,” and among those 49 patrons were many dukes, counts, earls, bankers, such as Baron A. de Rothschild, and a handful of institutional libraries.

Daniel Giraud Elliot Bird of Paradise (3)
© AMNH/D. Finnin

In 1887, Elliot’s large ornithological library was purchased for the American Museum of Natural History by Cornelius Vanderbilt and Percy Pyne, and it was presumably at this time that this volume came to the Museum. Through a gift by Elliot’s daughter Margaret in 1927, the American Museum of Natural History is also indeed fortunate to have the original watercolors by [Joseph] Wolf [1820–1899], along with many of his original wash drawings of these magnificent birds. 

A version of this story appears in the Spring 2013 issue of Rotunda, the Member magazine.