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The Museum received its charter in 1869, although it was established as an organization several years earlier. During the early years a few fish specimens were listed in the annual lists of accessions, but the study of fishes was not a recognized activity. In 1901, fishes were assigned to the Department of Invertebrate Zoology. In 1904, Professor Bashford Dean became the first Curator of Fishes in the Department of Vertebrate Paleontology. In 1909, Professor Dean became Curator of Fossil and Recent Fishes in the Department of Ichthyology and Herpetology. Eleven years later (1920), this department was divided into a Department of Herpetology under Mary C. Dickerson and a Department of Ichthyology with J.T. Nichols as Associate Curator in Charge. In 1930, the department was renamed the Department of Living and Extinct Fishes, and in 1941 W.K. Gregory became its departmental head. In 1942, the department became the Department of Fishes, but in 1944 it merged with the Department of Invertebrates into a new Department of Fishes and Aquatic Biology under the direction of Dr. C.M. Breder. This arrangement continued until 1960 when the Department of Ichthyology became a separate entity, only to be merged again with the Department of Herpetology in 1988. Finally, the department was separated again in 1996. Despite the numerous name changes, the history of ichthyology at the American Museum seems to fall into five distinct periods.
The Bashford Dean Era (1904-1920)
The major emphasis during this period was on the study of fossil fishes with an increasing commitment to Recent fishes, probably as the result of efforts by J.T. Nichols. The major production during this period was the Bibliography of Fishes. The scientific journal Copeia was founded by Nichols in 1913.
The John T. Nichols Era (1920-1941)
During this period the collection of Recent fishes became a significant activity of the museum. Dean was honorary curator and W.K. Gregory was in the department at this time and in 1933 produced his classic study Fish Skulls.
The Charles M. Breder Era (1944-1960)
During this period A. E. Parr assumed the role of Director of the Museum and under his control the collection of fishes was de-emphasized and attention was focused on field ecological studies. Neither Breder nor Parr held systematic collections in high esteem.
The Donn E. Rosen Era (1960-1985)
When J.A. Oliver assumed the directorship of the Museum, he sought to bring the emphasis of the department back to systematics. Donn E. Rosen was hired in 1960, C. Lavett Smith in 1962, James W. Atz in 1964, and Gareth Nelson in 1967. Rosen almost immediately upon arrival began his monumental series of studies on higher classification of fishes. In 1967, Gareth Nelson began his work on cladistics and biogeography. It was during this period that the collection became a major priority and, with NSF support, it was reorganized in 1963 - 1965, and again in 1983-86.
The Modern Era (1987- ?)
Following the death of Donn Rosen, the department has undergone many changes, but the department has continued to focus a lot of attention on building and maintaining the collection. It was during this time that the collection database was computerized, and there were AMNH funded renovations to upgrade the departmental facilities. Melanie L.J. Stiassny joined the staff in 1987, Scott A. Schaefer joined the department in 1996, and most recently John S. Sparks started in 2002.