Pick from the Past
Natural History, October 1940

Museum Quiz

“Information, please” is the request which comes 25,000-strong
each year to one of the world’s unique clearinghouses of information.
An inside view of the amazing curiosity of the American public.



Roy Chapman Andrews

Roy Chapman Andrews in the Gobi Desert

Photo from the American Museum of Natural History
GEORGE WASHINGTON’S false teeth appeared in the Museum not long ago. They were awesome looking things set in a steel denture with a spring which kept the upper set in place when he opened his mouth. I have always thought that the Father of Our Country had rather a grim expression and now I know why. The teeth came to our Department of Mammals in the hands of a New York dentist who wanted to have Doctor Anthony tell him from what animal they were made. A wapiti or elk had contributed the teeth.

This was one of approximately 25,000 questions answered by our Museum’s Scientific Staff during 1939, of which, as best we can estimate, one half were highly technical and dealing with intricate scientific questions relating to the life of our community, and the other half non-scientific and personal.

George Washington’s question was easy and right up our alley, but what is a curator in a natural history museum to answer when he is asked how sour milk is used in the manufacture of billiard balls? Or, “How can I preserve my bridal bouquet perfectly in color and form?” “Where can I get a copy of the $25,000 check given to Colonel Lindbergh for his flight across the Atlantic?” “What shall I do to get rid of the smell from sewerage that backs up under my house?”

A song writer wanted to know if a song could be written about an “orange moon in June,” and a great department store asked if wearing wooden shoes was detrimental to health. A doctor at the Medical Center sent us a bone that had been swallowed by a patient, for identification. A radio broadcaster asked for some live ants which would walk on a microphone pickup; a novelist begged for “a list of insects that might be found in the basement of a pawnshop.” The editor of a popular magazine devoted to the theater, restaurants and amusements, wanted to know what to advise a reader to do for a turtle that was blind in one eye, and a great motion picture producer asked what were the possible throat noises of dinosaurs.

A list of the questions asked the staff of the American Museum of Natural History shows that when a person is uncertain where else to get information about a subject, whether or not it pertains to natural history, he gives the question to us. We are a center for the most amazing number and kinds of inquiries, more than half of them technical, most of them serious, but some so extraordinary that we can only suspect the mentality of the people who ask them.

At least a third of the staff members’ time is devoted to answering questions that come by letter, telephone and personal visit. We don’t mind it, for it is a part of our job as a public institution. I must admit that it is more thrilling to describe the new species in a collection of birds from South America, to unwrap a 3000-year-old mummy, or plan the details of an expedition to Tibet than to send a serious answer to questions like these:

“How are the flowers and bushes in your habitat groups kept so fresh? Are they watered every night?”

“What is a doodlebug ?”

“Where can I get a photograph of a bee’s sting?”

“Are there any women and thunder storms at the south frigid zone or South Pole?

“Please let me know the name of the scientist who wanted a young couple to go to a Deserted Island and stay for five years nud.”

“What makes a man turn to stone? My great-grandfather died 200 years ago. We dug him up the other day. His body was turned to stone. How much will you give me for him?”

“At my house there are spirits roaming around. What can you do about it?”

“What are the insects mentioned by Joel in the Bible?”

Nevertheless we do answer these questions and give a serious answer, too, even though it may seem a waste of time.

I must not give the impression that our people are largely occupied with replying to inquiries of that sort. As a matter of fact they are only a very small part of the number that are received every day, but were I to chronicle the variety and multitude of scientific questions I am afraid that no layman would read this article.

What we consider technical questions mostly concern the identification of specimens of every kind from a dinosaur bone to minute sea animals; these, of course, far outnumber all the rest. Requests for practical assistance in conservation, education and every branch of natural science represent a great number. A sister-institution asks for help in producing biological sound films; a foreign government would like advice on laws for the protection of whales; the Audubon Society wishes to discuss the proposed regulations affecting the control of fish-eating birds at hatcheries and rearing ponds. A neighboring state asks what is the effect of Vitamin B1 and hormones on aquatic plants or water occupied by fish; a man representing a great refrigerating concern wishes information about the preservation of mammoth remains in the frozen tundra of Siberia.

We are a clearinghouse for newspapers and magazines. Hardly a day passes that the editor of some publication does not check with us on the accuracy of an article submitted or of a story that has come over the wires, or ask for information on some unexpected subject. Every spring when vacations start, we know that the sea-serpent story will crop up. Resorts have learned the value of reports of strange apparitions to draw tourists, and, of course, it makes excellent copy for a feature writer. The Loch Ness Monster put that little village in Scotland on the international map in a big way. Mermaids, too, run a close second; and possible discoveries of ambergris, the valuable substance used in perfumery, go into the thousands. I may say, in passing, that although I have examined hundreds of “finds” myself, no one has ever yet brought me a chunk of real ambergris. [For the science and lore of ambergris, see Robert Cushman Murphy’s 1933 article, “Floating Gold.” ]

Many thousands of dollars have been saved by the advice which our Department of Entomology has given individuals who have houses infested with termites or valuable trees which are being destroyed by some unknown insect.

The U. S. Customs Service makes frequent use of our staff on all sorts of questions where objects of natural history are concerned or for expert determination of various importations. I once saved a man from a heavy fine or imprisonment when I was a member of the Department of Mammals. A Customs official brought to the Museum what he maintained were the canine teeth of wapiti or elk. These were formerly used as watch charms by the Order of Elks, and as thousands of animals were slaughtered for the two teeth alone, stringent laws were passed against their importation. This man maintained that his specimens were walrus teeth. By sectioning them I proved him right and saved him from serious trouble.

Designers discovered that the plumage of various birds gave unusual and beautiful patterns for new ribbons, and primitive Indian fabrics found in the American Museum produced ideas which are incorporated in many modern dress goods. These are all discussed with people in the Museum.

Hardly a day passes that some member of our staff is not asked for advice by a young man or woman who is planning a career. I suppose that I get more of these questions than any of the others. Letters pour in asking, “How can I be an explorer?” “What courses must I take to fit me for Museum work?” “What do various branches of science offer as life jobs?” Dozens of mothers ask for interviews to discuss these problems of their children.

At certain times we are deluged with requests for travel information, routes to various countries; costs; clothes to wear, etc. By this I do not mean sportsmen or explorers who are looking for expert advice which would naturally be best known by our field men. On the contrary, these are the sorts of questions that any tourist agency could answer much better than a natural history museum. For instance, a gentleman came to tell us that he was bored with the cold weather of last spring; that he wanted to move to a warm climate. Where should he go? Did we have information about business connections in the Netherlands East Indies or Africa?

Motion picture companies find the Museum a mine of information on natives, customs, houses, dress, etc., for films and for all sorts of technical questions involving authentic production. Doctors, of course, often come to us with questions in comparative anatomy and even for advice in treating neurotic disturbances in patients.

“True or false” questions which come to the Museum would be grand for a radio quiz. Some of them are: “Do bears suffer with arthritis?” (Yes.) “Is it true that a herd of Lilliputian horses, the size of police dogs, exist in the Grand Canyon of Arizona?” (No.)

“Is there any truth in the story that skunks sometimes cause fires in barns, the assumption being that a spark of electricity from the fur of the skunk under proper circumstances would ignite gases in the barn.” (A superstition for which we cannot justly accuse the poor skunk.)

“Do foxes troubled with fleas hold a piece of wood in the mouth, run to a stream and slowly submerge. The fleas are supposed to leave the animal’s body and take refuge in the wood. Then the fox drops the wood and swims away.” True or false? (False.)

“Is it true that 65 billion represents the number of people born into this world since its beginning?” (Probably 90 billion would be closer.)

“Is it true that the praying mantis jumps out of trees onto the backs of rats and bites their necks so that they bleed to death?” (No.)

There is in my office what we call the “Believe-It-Or-Not” file. I am ending this article by quoting four which are typical.

Dear Sir:

I have known that, organized by your great Institution, frequently from New York depart hunting expeditions. If one of these expeditions should need a barber and hairdresser (also sharpshooter) I would be very glad to obtain that position.


Gentlemen:

Gentlemen, let me have your attention to this letter. It is very important to me, also it means my happiness and future career.

I have been informed, that the American Museum of Natural History is about ready to send out another exploring expedition soon.

Adventure is calling me. The lure of adventure has taken its final hold on me, now and forever.

Gentlemen, I ask you to send me out with that expedition. Take me, think it over, but don’t refuse me. Gentlemen, the thought of not going almost drives me mad.

Gentlemen, I pray for this to come true as I have prayed for this opportunity to write. Enclosed are four cents in stamps, and I’m now waiting eagerly for an answer.

Yours for exploring and adventure.

For the Present: Farewell Gentleman and all.


Dear Sir:

I am a bachelor 65 years of age. I am orphaned, live 57 years in Chicago, have a clear record. I can furnish 1,000 bond and references. I will pay you $100 if you find me a wife but not a negrow. She must have $10,000 cash. I am a temperance man. I will join your Museum, also the wife may be from 16 to 60 years of age. I have $250 in 3 banks—they are closed. I carry $10,000 insurance.

Yours truly,


Gents:

I know you will think this is a crazy letter but when I tell you the facts you will be glad I am writing to you for it means money to you and me.

My husband—a good, fine man—had an awful sickness and when he came out of it, he had no sense of feeling. You can stick pins, needles or any sharp object in him and he just laughs. He is a lot of help to me around the grocery store and I hate to lose him, but this is my idea.

Put him in a sort of cage in one of your rooms and let the visitors stick pins in him at zØ a prick. This will be, I know, a big money-maker for you Museum people and for me, as I would, of course, expect a certain percent of each prick. I know the public will flock to see this human pincushion.

Let me hear from you quick, as I know you will never regret it.

Yours truly,

P. S. He has a fine appetite and will eat anything.


I am somewhat fearful that this story may have left an impression that the Museum Staff wastes a great deal of its valuable time in answering questions such as I have given above. This is far from true. These examples give only the amusing side of the picture and are perhaps one per cent of the 25,000 inquiries which come to us every year. The other 99 per cent are serious questions of real importance, which help carry on the Museum’s function as an educational institution.

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