Pick from the Past
Information, please is the request which comes 25,000-strong
each year to one of the worlds unique clearinghouses of information.
An inside view of the amazing curiosity of the American public.
By Roy Chapman Andrews
Director, The American Museum of Natural History
This was one of approximately 25,000 questions answered by our Museums 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 Washingtons 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 dont 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 bees 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 Murphys 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 animals 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.
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 Museums function as an educational institution.