“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.
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?”