Popular Science Monthly/Volume 29/September 1886/Sketch of Frederick Ward Putnam

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PSM V29 D594 Frederick Ward Putnam.jpg




OF the long series of living American scientists, probably no one is more generally and favorably known than Frederick Ward Putnam, Curator of the Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology, at Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Permanent Secretary of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Brief reference to Mr. Putnam's ancestry will prove of interest. He is a lineal descendant of John Putnam, who came from England, circa 1634, and whose family became very prominent in Salem, Massachusetts, particularly during the witchcraft delusion. A glance at the Putnam genealogy shows how large a proportion of the prominent people of that historic town, Salem, are included among his ancestors—Fiskes, Higginsons, Palfreys, Hathornes, and others. The same is true of his mother's family, the Appletons. As was the case with the Putnam family, the great majority were graduates of Harvard College, one of them, the Rev. John Rogers, being president of that institution.

Mr. Putnam was born at Salem, April 16, 1839, being the youngest of the three sons of Eben and Elizabeth Appleton Putnam. In very early life he evinced a fondness for natural history, which his parents wisely encouraged, and he was fortunate also in living in a town where was maintained a most excellent zoölogical museum.

Putnam's active scientific career dates from his election to membership of the Essex Institute, in 1855, he being then in his sixteenth year. In 1856 he was made curator of ornithology and cabinet-keeper. In the thirty years that have since elapsed he has taken an active part in the Institute, holding many important offices, and since 1871 has been its vice-president. It was in 1856, also, that he was elected a member of the Boston Society of Natural History, and here, too, his ability as a naturalist was promptly recognized, as shown by his being placed on many important committees, made a member of its Council, and in 1880 vice-president, a position which he still holds.

In February, 1856, a most important step was taken. Putnam entered the Lawrence Scientific School, and became a special student under Professor Agassiz. In a few months, Professor Agassiz made him an assistant at the Museum of Comparative Zoology, in special charge of the collection of fishes. In this capacity he remained until 1864, when he married and removed to Salem, to take charge of the Museum of the Essex Institute.

In August, 1856, Putnam joined the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In 1869, during Professor Lovering's absence in Europe, he acted for him, in the office of permanent secretary, and during this time was also local secretary of the Salem meeting. In 1873, on the resignation of Professor Lovering, he was elected permanent secretary, and has been re-elected three times, and is now serving his fourth term of five years, being, under the old and new constitutions, a continuous tenure of thirteen years. When elected to this responsible office, in 1873, the Association barely numbered five hundred members, and now has a membership-list of over two thousand names. It is unquestionable that this increase is largely due to Professor Putnam's executive ability and thorough realization of what such an association needs to make it a success.

In 1867 the trustees of the fund given by the late George Peabody for the promotion of science and useful knowledge in Essex County, Massachusetts, appointed Putnam Superintendent of the Museum of the East India Marine Society and the scientific collections of the Essex Institute, which the trustees had received as a permanent deposit, with authority to reorganize and arrange them in the East India Marine Hall. On the incorporation of the trustees of this fund, given by the great philanthropist, under the name of the Peabody Academy of Science, Putnam was appointed Director of the Museum, and held the office until he resigned in 1876, when he removed to Cambridge.

In 1868 the degree of A. M. was conferred upon Putnam, by Williams College, where he had lectured on zoölogy and aided in the scientific arrangement of the natural history collections.

In 1874 Putnam was an instructor at the School of Natural History on Penikese Island, taking charge of the school at the opening of its summer term, during the illness of Mr. Alexander Agassiz.

In this year, also, he was appointed an assistant on the Geological Survey of Kentucky, and passed several months in cave explorations. It was at this time that Salt and Saunders Caves were thoroughly explored and so much of archæological importance was discovered. A report of these “finds” was published in the “Proceedings of the Boston Society of Natural History.” Important zoological results were also obtained from the same and other caves, and accounts thereof published in various journals of learned societies, and subsequently issued as a separate volume, under the joint authorship of F. W. Putnam and A. S. Packard, Jr.

In September, 1874, on the death of Professor Jeffries Wyman, Putnam, at the request of Professor Asa Gray, took temporary charge of the collections of the Peabody Museum of American Archæology and Ethnology, in connection with Harvard University. At the annual meeting of the board of trustees, in January, 1875, Putnam was appointed Curator of the Museum. That such action should have been taken was most natural, as Professor Gray, in his single brief report as curator pro tem., remarks: “As respects the care of the museum during the short period in which I have endeavored to act as temporary curator, while I have given to it such attention as I could, it was soon evident that the lack of time and of the requisite technical knowledge would prevent me from personally carrying on the work which had to be done. I therefore availed myself of the permission granted at a former meeting of the board, and engaged the valuable assistance of Mr. F. W. Putnam, of Salem, who is better acquainted than any one else with the museum, and with Dr. Wyman's method and arrangements, having been much associated with him both in exploration and publication.” The above clearly shows that, of many who would have gladly undertaken the care of the museum, no one was so eminently fitted for the position.

In 1876 Putnam was also appointed an assistant in the Museum of Comparative Zoölogy, in charge of the collection of fishes, which duty was undertaken and continued until 1878, when domestic affliction necessitated his resignation.

In 1876 the Engineer Department of the United States Army appointed Putnam to take charge of and report upon the archæological collections made by the attachés of the Geological Survey, west of the 100th meridian, Lieutenant George M. Wheeler in charge. The report was finished in 1879, and constitutes Volume VII of the quarto publications of that survey. In the preparation of this volume, Putnam was assisted by several specialists; but his own hand is evident in the general editorial supervision of all parts, and the exhaustive article, covering fifty-five pages, on perforated stones, by Putnam exclusively, is one of the most complete and valuable contributions to prehistoric archæology by an American author.

As indicative of the value of his scientific labors, we find that, between the years 1858 and 1886, Putnam has been made a member or correspondent of twenty-seven learned societies in America, and of five in Europe. In April, 1885, he was elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences.

Although in recent years Putnam's attention has been given so largely to archæological investigations, his knowledge of general natural history has not been overlooked by those who best know him; and in 1882 Governor Long, of Massachusetts, appointed him a commissioner of inland fisheries for five years, and so far as practicable his attention is given to the onerous duties of this important office. By the special act of the Massachusetts Legislature, which took effect last month, he became Commissioner of Fish and Game.

Mr. Putnam's contributions to scientific literature have been many, and all are valuable. As early as 1855, communications with reference to the fishes of Essex County, Massachusetts, were published in the “Proceedings of the Essex Institute”; but his first paper of length and marked importance was the “Catalogue of the Birds of Essex County, Massachusetts,” with notes; and reference to the ornithic fauna of the State at large. This paper, prepared while its author was yet in his teens, has stood the test of time, but two errors, and these unimportant, having since been detected.

This contribution to zoölogical literature was followed by thirty-seven papers on birds, reptiles, fishes, and insects, mostly native species.

In 1857, while attending a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, at Montreal, Putnam found, on the side of Mount Royal, near the site of the present reservoir, a quantity of clam-shells, fish-bones, burned earth, and pottery, and, during the following winter, called attention to them, at meetings of the Essex Institute, as evidence of the early occupation by man of that locality; that the spot was, in fact, a veritable kjökkenmödding, or, as we now call such accumulations, shell-heaps. This is among the first of such notices of ancient man in America.

In 1865, Putnam published a paper on “An Indian Grave and its Contents, on Winter Island, Salem, Massachusetts,” and since then two hundred and twenty-nine papers have been given to the public.

His archæological activity may be said to date from the publication of his “Winter Island” paper, for, on looking over the long list of titles, it will be seen that, from this time, papers on early American man steadily increase in number, and the work of the zoölogist practically ceases. While archæologists have good cause to rejoice at this, it can not but be viewed with regret by the zoölogist, considering the character of the many papers on their favorite subjects.

Besides the immense amount of literary work thus briefly sketched, there is to be considered, also, Putnam's labors as an editor, for much of the value of the “Proceedings of the Essex Institute,” of the “Annual Reports of the Trustees of the Peabody Academy of Science,” and of the annual volumes of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Vols. XXII-XXXIV, is due to his careful editorial supervision. Putnam also was one of the original editors and published Vols. I-IX of the “American Naturalist.”

While brief papers are continually appearing in various scientific serials, it is to the annual reports of the great museum, of which he is the head, that Putnam gives his principal attention. Already ten of these have been published under his direction, and others are in preparation. It is scarcely necessary to add that they contain an immense fund of invaluable archæological knowledge, and must, of necessity, be accessible to every one who would have a thorough knowledge, so far as it can be obtained as yet, of ancient man in America.

A perusal of these reports and a careful examination of the museum's collections at once show the eminent fitness of the man for the place, the method of conducting exploration and exhibiting the results thereof being that which a zoölogist adopts in treating of a purely zoölogical problem. It is not the design of the museum merely to group a vast amount of material together, in series of like objects, to show how varied is man's handiwork, but to let associated objects, as they occur, tell the story of the people who used them. This was the view taken by Professor Wyman in collecting the remains of ancient man from the Florida shell-heaps —he would have removed a shell-heap, bodily, to the museum, had it been practicable — and in this spirit, with by no means sufficient funds to carry on the work, Putnam has continued to labor, and succeeded in gathering a quarter of a million objects from every nook and corner of America.

Recently, the trustees of the Peabody Museum, in carrying out the objects of Mr. Peabody's trust — one of which was the establishment of a professorship of American archæology and ethnology — unanimously nominated Putnam for the position, and the corporation of Harvard College established the professorship.

The mantle of the late lamented Jeffries Wyman could have fallen on no worthier, abler shoulders than those of Frederick Ward Putnam.