Those who use and care for collections are subtly hindered if they lack understanding of the history of their collections. The present work provides a frame of reference for the American Museum's accumulations of Recent amphibians and reptiles and for the department established to curate and use them.
The herpetological holdings began in 1869 with purchase of the collection of Maximilian, Prince of Wied-Neuwied, and additional specimens began accumulating from other sources. But the signature and scope of the collection were most importantly determined by the explosion of expeditionary fever at the American Museum in the early 20th century and by establishment of a department with curators charged with organizing and studying the incoming collections.
A Department of Ichthyology and Herpetology was formalized in 1909 and later split in 1920. The original department had three ichthyologists and one herpetologist—Mary Cynthia Dickerson, who also served as editor of the American Museum Journal (= Natural History as of 1919) and as Curator of the old Department of Woods and Forestry. Despite an incredible workload, Dickerson threw herself into both herpetological exhibition work and collection building—two parts of a calculated tripartite effort at establishing a major herpetology department that could stand on its own with the older departments of the Museum.
The third part of Dickerson's evolving program was a conscientious attempt at building a library and center for herpetological research. Frustrated in finding time for her own investigations, she deliberately sought young scholars who could independently conduct both fieldwork and collection-based research. She sent Emmett Reid Dunn on his first collecting trip and, by 1916–1917, Dickerson had attracted to her cause assistants Karl Patterson Schmidt, Gladwyn Kingsley Noble, and Charles Lewis Camp. In a few years, with interruption for military service, Dickerson's “triumvirate” was accomplishing work that would establish the department as the major research center that she had envisioned.
Concurrent with her editorship of Natural History and her curatorship of Woods and Forestry, Dickerson established a robust program of herpetological exhibition and research in only a decade. Herpetology—her Department—was officially separated from Ichthyology in February 1920. But Dickerson had been losing a perilous grip on her sanity and, on Christmas Eve of that year, was committed to an asylum, where she died three years later at age 57.
Assistant Curator G. K. Noble, age 27, was given formal charge of the Department beginning in 1921. Although K. P. Schmidt had resigned earlier, Noble arranged for Schmidt's return to help in a difficult transition, during which Noble completed his Ph.D. dissertation and Schmidt brought Dickerson's research to conclusion. Schmidt gave his final resignation in 1922, in order to take charge of the new Division of Reptiles and Amphibians at the Field Museum of Natural History.
Noble inherited Dickerson's departmental philosophy and continued her emphasis on exhibition and on building the collection and bibliographic files, although his own research expanded dramatically. Noble never abandoned interest in fieldwork, anatomy, and collection-based systematics, but he combined those pursuits with increasing attention to laboratory-based, experimental investigations using techniques of endocrinology and neurology. In 1928, he received offers for positions at Cornell University and at Columbia University, the latter to replace geneticist Thomas Hunt Morgan (who was later awarded a Nobel Prize for his work at Columbia). With support from President Henry Fairfield Osborn and trustee Douglas Burden, Noble's request for new facilities was approved and he stayed at the Museum. The Department was renamed the Dep