Dearly Departed: The fascinating lives and letters in the MVZ Correspondence Collection

The MVZ Archives has three new undergraduate students working on the IMLS funded project, “Strategic Stewardship for Sustaining the Archives of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology.” Our students are working on the MVZ’s active correspondence collection and identifying correspondents who are deceased. The files of these individuals will be accessioned to the MVZ historical correspondence collection and made available for research.

A by product of this activity is that our students are discovering the fascinating lives of the individuals who have corresponded with the MVZ. They will be sharing the lives and letters of these correspondents in our new blog series, “Dearly Departed.”

As part of our daily work, Archivists research individuals by reading obituaries and memoriams. While it is a solemn activity, I am always moved by the fact that a piece of someone’s life and commitment to science is at the MVZ. Their letters or field notes reflect a moment in a person’s life (usually when he/she was a young graduate student), exploring the more remote corners of the world. I hope that later in their lives, they remember these trips fondly.

I spoke about this in a recent conversation with colleagues and I found that I wasn’t alone. Many archivists come across stories that can be quite tragic. It’s not something you can prepare for or something you’ll read in a peer reviewed paper but it is a shared experience among us. We absorb these stories and can instantly recall our more haunting discoveries. For my colleague, Lesley Parilla, Cataloging Coordinator for the Smithsonian Field Book Project, it is Louis di Zerega Mearns’s obituary which was written by his own father, Edgar Mearns. Louis died of diphtheria at the age of 26. You can read Parilla’s moving account on the Smithsonian Field Book Project blog.

I’ve come across several moving stories at the MVZ but there are two that I think of often. George Melendez Wright‘s untimely death in an automobile accident at the age of 31 is especially tragic. His contributions to the National Parks is extraordinary considering his short life. When I was working on his papers, I realized that my daughters were the same ages as his at the time of his death: 2 and 4 years old. It was and still is a reminder to me of how every day is a gift.

And I will never forget the day I came across Alden Miller’s memoriam file. It was marked “Confidential until all authors are deceased”. Inside the file were letters solicited by Ernst Mayr of Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. The solicitation for letters was in preparation of Mayr’s memoriam of Alden Miller. Included in the letters were several from Loye “Padre” Miller, Alden’s father. Like Parilla, I was deeply moved by the writings of a parent, reflecting on their child’s life and death. I agree with Parilla, these stories stay with you and deserve to be brought out of folders and boxes; to be remembered and honored.

You can read the first letter from Loye Miller to Ernst Mayr and the first page of his series of notes. There are too many touching anecdotes to document them all here but Miller’s reflections on learning the news of Alden’s death is poetic and memorable:

and then came that “wind which swept my garden”. In ninety years one has to meet many head winds but this was a mighty cold and desert wind. It leaves but little greenery in the garden.

Please keep checking back on our blog as we highlight extraordinary individuals and stories connected to the MVZ.


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