Watson, George E. (Active)
United States National Museum of Natural History
George was born on August 13, 1931, in New York City. He was raised and schooled until 13 years old in Greenwich and New Canaan, Connecticut, in neighborhoods with streams, ponds, open fields, and woods that led to an interest in natural history. His parents encouraged such activities, gave him a room off the kitchen for his “cabinet of curiosities,” and he took a correspondence course from the Northwestern School of Taxidermy. At St. Mark’s School in Massachusetts, he had five years of Latin and three years of ancient Greek and participated in Sunday morning bird walks. During summers in Stonington, Connecticut, and Fishers Island, New York, he was further exposed to outdoor life, seabird breeding colonies and sailing. He also met William Beebe at the Bronx Zoo through a family friend. Although he majored in ancient Greek as an undergraduate at Yale, he took many natural history courses and with the encouragement of Dillon Ripley, curator of birds in the Peabody Museum, further refined his animal skinning abilities under museum preparators. Ripley, aware of his interests in natural history and Greece, helped secure a Yale traveling fellowship and additional funding for George to collect bird and other natural history specimens for the Peabody during 16 months while affiliated with the American School of Classical Studies in Athens. He acquired a World War II jeep and visited all parts of the country, including the Aegean islands, bringing back a comprehensive general collection. He contracted a mild case of hepatitis in Greece, resulting in his military draft deferral and eventual 4F status. In August 1955, he went to Cuba for four and a half months of collecting for the Peabody Museum, and with Ripley published a paper of “Cuban bird notes” in YPM Postilla on the collection and his observations. The experience of the two trips and his interest in natural history convinced him to apply to the Department of Zoology in the Yale Graduate School. Returning to the American School of Classical Studies in 1958, with support of a National Science Foundation predoctoral fellowship, he spent another 18 months in Greece and a two-month whirlwind tour in southern and western Turkey for field work for his thesis on Evolution and Ecology of Passerine Birds in the Islands of the Aegean Sea. He also reared Alectoris partridge, Coturnix quail, and chickens on the roof of the Peabody Museum on which he made observations on feathers and molt. The Cuban, Greek, and Turkish collections and observations on feather growth led to a number of papers published or in press before he completed his graduate work and they, along with a set of Teach-me About Birds flash cards and Encyclopedia Americana entries and his museum and field experience, led to an offer as assistant curator of birds in the Museum of Natural History in August 1962. Subsequently he was promoted to associate curator and curator and served five years as chairman of the Department of Vertebrate Zoology. Joining Washington Biologists’ Field Club member Phil Humphrey in the Museum, George took responsibility for Old World birds and planning the move of the bird collections into new quarters in the Museum. The International Indian Ocean Expedition was just beginning and George, with Richard Zusi and Bob Storer, put out a Preliminary Field Guide to the Birds of the Indian Ocean in 1963 to assist ornithologists to collect observations and specimens in an area that had been little studied. That rapidly-produced work based only on “bench study,” led to significant original fieldwork for two other guides, Seabirds of the Tropical Atlantic Ocean in 1966 and Handbook to the Birds of the Antarctic and Sub-Antarctic in 1975. His research and incidental travels have taken him to all seven continents and the “seven seas.” He is author of over a hundred scientific research papers, reports and book chapters and was one of three co-authors of Volume XI of the Check-list of the Birds of the World covering Old World warblers and flycatchers. He contributed a major chapter on birds to Wilhemina Jashemski and Fred Meyers’ The Natural History of Pompeii, in 2002. George was an active, early participant in the efforts to computerize the National Museum of Natural History collections. He served as U.S. observer on the 18th Chilean Antarctic Commission. Along with John Aldrich, he was a “scientific expert” who assisted the U.S. Department of State in formulating and negotiating the U.S.-Japan Migratory Bird Treaty in Tokyo and Washington in 1968 and 1969 and also served on the U.S. working group for drafting the Treaty that was signed in 1972 and later ratified by the Senate. In 1975, George began a long association with the National Geographic Society as a member of its committee for research and exploration, replacing Alexander Wetmore. He also acted as ornithological advisor to the Society’s Magazine, Television and Book Service Divisions. In addition, he advised Time-Life Books on several natural history publications. George retired from the Smithsonian in early 1985, and from 1986 to 1993 served as administrative assistant in the Office of Development and associate editor of the St. Albans Bulletin. George has served as an officer in professional societies including the American Ornithologists’ Union, the International Ornithological Congress, the Audubon Naturalist Society, and the International Council for Bird Protection. He has been president of the Literary Society and the Wesley Heights Historical Society and a board member of the Cosmos Club. He has led or been guest lecturer on ecotours for the Smithsonian, Lindblad, Viking, and National Geographic in the Indian Ocean, Mediterranean Sea, South America, and Antarctica. George was elected to the Washington Biologists’ Field Club in 1966 and has served on the finance committee, house and grounds committee, as a board member, and as president from 1981 to 1984. Among his honors are undergraduate Greek prizes from Yale, Sigma XI, the Antarctic Service Medal, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science fellowship, and he was a semifinalist for the Arthur S. Fleming Award in 1970. George has a bird louse and also a mountain ridge, nine-mile-long Watson Peaks, in the Palmer Peninsula of Antarctica, named for him. George married Louisa Carter “Terry” Johnson, a professional organizer, December 10, 1966, and they have two children, Elisabeth Carter, an employment lawyer in Los Angeles, and George IV, a vice-president specializing in health issues for a venture capital partnership in Baltimore, Maryland. George and his wife have five grandchildren.