Tag Archives: Frank Chapman

The Remarkable Human Phenomenon


Witmer Stone: The Fascination of Nature is a book full of interesting (and decided) characters – none more so than Brooklyn-born Roy Curtiss, who, when he was only 11 years old, was described by AMNH ornithologist Frank Chapman as “the most remarkable human phenomenon who has ever entered our gates.” As I wrote in Fascination, “The enigmatic Curtiss was precocious, if he was anything: he was reportedly reading and writing at age three, attended his first AOU meeting when he was nine, and taught himself Latin in order to read Linnaeus’s original writings in that language.”

Chapman’s “phenomenon” comment was in reply to a query from Stone, after Curtiss had sent Stone several rambling letters with his opinions on the state on American ornithological taxonomy. Stone, who correctly suspected he was dealing with a child with limited knowledge about the subject, told Chapman that Curtiss proposed “overturning the names of nearly all our birds.”

Stone was also unimpressed with Curtiss’s privately published book (at age 13) on the fauna of New England, declining to review it in The Auk, but he must have been impressed (or possibly– and typically – “astonished”) by the title: An Account of the Natural History of New England and of Nova Scotia and Lower Canada of the Islands of the Coasts Between the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Bay of New York; of the Mountains Wherein the Hudson Rises; and All Eastward As Far As the Bay of Massachusetts; In So Far As It Applies to Beasts, Birds, Reptiles, Whales, Fresh and Salt Water Fish and Shellfish, Worms, Insects and Pests.  Well, that about covers it.

Neal Evenhuis of the Hawaii Biological Survey wrote an outstanding, well-researched biographical article on Curtiss starting on p. 13 here.  The article contains the photo accompanying this post of a young Curtiss, looking intently serious about something. If he was contemplating all the future natural history discoveries he was going to make, they were not forthcoming. After such a promising beginning, Curtiss, who was born into wealth, spent his life traveling the world and contributing little of importance to the natural sciences.

My “Christ among the doctors” comment in the book about Curtiss’s early days, when his elders were amazed at his scientific interest, references the account in Luke‘s gospel where the 12-year-old Jesus amazed the elders in the temple at Jerusalem with his knowledge of the Scriptures. Over the years, several artists have depicted the Biblical incident (often referred to as “Christ Among the Doctors”), including 16th-century Italian painter Paolo Veronese:

Christ among