Wetmore, Alexander (Deceased)
Alex was born on June 18, 1886, in North Freedom, Wisconsin. He was interested in birds as a child. He had his first published article at age 13, called My Experience with a Red-headed Woodpecker. By age 15, he was reading several ornithology books, including Bird-Lore and Frank M. Chapman’s Handbook of Birds of Eastern North America. He also began field work and collection and preparation of bird skins. In high school he went on his first trip to collect birds with his physical geography teacher. He attended the University of Kansas while working at the Museum of Natural History there. He earned his AB degree there in 1912, and then moved onto the George Washington University to earn his MA degree in 1916 and his PhD degree in 1920. He was awarded an honorary ScD in 1932, an ScD from the University of Wisconsin in 1946, a DSc from Centre College in Kentucky in 1947, and a DSc from Ripon College in 1959. In 1908, Alex had the experience of meeting one of the men he looked up to, Frank M. Chapman, at the American Museum of Natural History. On the same trip he asked James Chapin and Ludlow Griscom to take him out to Central Park during lunch to see a European starling, which seems amazing now considering how far and how quickly they have spread. Alex worked at the Smithsonian Institution for much of his career. He is remembered for spending hours up in a tower of the Smithsonian building studying the barn owls that nested there and their droppings. He was secretary of the Smithsonian Institution from 1945 to 1952 and resisted pressure to close the tower during this time. Later the tower was closed by a different administrative group. However, when Dr. S. Dillon Ripley became secretary and decided to open it for the owls to nest again, he gave 86-year old Dr. Wetmore the chance to personally remove the metal sheet that had blocked the opening. Alex became a specialist in migrating birds and focused his studies on the Isthmus of Panama, the major flyway for birds migrating between North and South America, starting in the mid-1940s and continuing for over 20 years. There he discovered 77 new species of birds. He also spent a great deal of time studying fossil birds. He marks as “the high point of my ornithological life” a trip he made to Lake Nakuru in Kenya, where he observed tens of thousands of flamingos. Also on this trip, he attempted to stop the Land Rover the field expedition was riding in at a fast pace, tracking a pride of lions, for a view of a duck. This is an example of what others recognize as his dedication and love of ornithology. National Geographic printed many of his best known books and articles. He wrote The Book of Birds (1932), Song and Garden Birds (1964), and Water, Prey, and Game Birds of North America (1965). Alex was a member of National Geographic’s board of trustees for almost 40 years, and for 35 of those years he was a part of the committee on research and exploration. He held high standards for authenticity, and was perceptive about birds after all of his years studying them. An example of this was when he wanted to get a photograph of a frog catching a sparrow, as he had seen occur, for one of his books. When the first photo was brought to him, he commented, “that bird is unhappy,” and perceived that it had been a staged photo with the bird tied down. To the photographer’s dismay, he was not satisfied. Alex was a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and many other national and local organizations. He was a long-time member of the Cosmos Club and was president of it in 1938. Alex was married to Fay Holloway on October 13, 1912. They had one daughter, Margaret Fenwick Harlan. After a divorce, he married Beatrice Thielan in December, 1953. He was elected to the Washington Biologists’ Field Club in 1915. He served as president from 1928 to 1931, and was awarded honorary membership in 1978. Alex died in December, 1978, in Washington, D. C. A memorial plaque was installed on Plummers Island for this popular and admired ornithologist.