In 1959, with the opening of the new Bingham Oceanographic Laboratory
building next door, the Bingham Oceanographic Collection was integrated
into the Yale Peabody Museum’s Division of Vertebarate Zoology ichthyology collection.
(The Bingham Lab had been housed in a former residential mansion on
Hillhouse Avenue in New Haven—the library was in a paneled grand
ballroom lit by a crystal chandelier, and the fish collection was
stored in a brick-paved wine cellar!)
Harry Payne Bingham, a graduate of Yale and a New York City businessman, sponsored 3 oceanographic expeditions for fish and invertebrate specimens for his own private research collection. The first expedition, in 1925, was to the Caribbean Sea aboard Bingham’s yacht Pawnee. The second expedition, in 1926, to the Pacific coast of Central America and the Gulf of California was aboard Bingham’s newly built yacht Pawnee II, which was specially designed for deep sea trawling and research. The third expedition, with the Pawnee II in 1927, was concentrated around the Bahamas and, to a lesser extent, Bermuda. Louis L. Mowbray and Francis West were enlisted to collect, preserve and identify the specimens from the first 2 expeditions. Charles M. Breder, Jr. described many of the new fishes.
Albert E. Parr, the new curator of Bingham’s growing fish collection, went along on the third expedition. Also in 1927, Bingham established the Bulletin of the Bingham Oceanographic Collection to publish the research on his specimens. In 1928, Bingham brought his entire collection to New Haven for a 2-year loan to Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History, where Parr became Assistant Curator of Zoology. When the loan expired in 1930, Bingham donated the entire collection to the Peabody Museum and set up the Bingham Oceanographic Foundation to continue the research in marine biology and oceanography, and to publish the results. Parr exchanged publications with other institutions and societies, and the Yale Peabody Museum library quickly grew.
By 1929, the Bingham Oceanographic Foundation had “under a joint research program with the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries…launched into a study of the spawning and early life history of the North and Middle Atlantic fishes of our shores. Mr. Parr directed a cruise in the Delaware Bay region for 4 months last summer .” Many of the specimens collected from 1929 to 1935 are now at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. In 1932, the Yale North India Expedition examined the geology, anthropology and biology of the region around the Ladak Range in northern India and western Tibet. The fishes collected and subsequently reported on, including three new species of cobotids, are not in the Division’s collections, but presumably may be found at the Indian Museum in Calcutta.
Through the 1930s the Foundation also conducted four joint cruises with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution using its ship, Atlantis, to investigate the fauna, flora and oceanography of the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean, and the Sargasso Sea. On these cruises Parr made many hydrographic studies, examined the Sargassum weed and tested an experimental trawl net designed to capture larger fish specimens. Charles Breder, now a Research Associate of the Bingham Laboratory, accompanied Parr on the 1934 cruise to study the life history of flying fishes.
In 1937, through a gift from Henry Sears, Parr established the Sears Foundation for Marine Research to promote research and publication in marine sciences. Sears had studied oceanography at Yale and donated a small collection of fishes from Tahiti. The Foundation’s Journal of Marine Research and its Memoirs of the Sears Foundation of Marine Research (including the series Fishes of the Western North Atlantic) remain important references today.
When Parr left New Haven in 1942 to become the director of the American Museum of Natural History, he left behind a strong legacy in deep sea ichthyology. His successor at the Bingham Oceanographic Laboratory was his student Daniel Merriman, whose interests ran towards fisheries and applied aspects of marine biology. Ernest F. Thompson, formerly Fisheries Officer for Jamaica, became a Research Assistant in 1944 and then a curator from 1946 to 1949.
Although Merriman was occupied more by the administration of the Bingham Oceanographic Laboratory and as Master of Yale’s Davenport College, after World War II collecting expeditions were launched to Nepal (1947), New Zealand (1948), Kenya (1950), Alaska (1951), Peru and British Guiana (1953), Sri Lanka, Maldives, Seychelles, and the Chagos Archipelago (1957). The Nepal expedition was conducted by Edward C. Migdalski, a preparator and collector for the fish collection. Most of the other expeditions included ichthyologist James E. Morrow, a student of Merriman’s interested in billfishes, and the unofficial curator of fishes from 1949 until 1960, when he left Yale. His successor, Alfred W. Ebeling, Assistant Professor of Biology and Assistant Curator in Vertebrate Zoology, wrote on the deep sea stephanoberycoids before he left in 1963. At about this time, a good collection of mesopelagic fishes from the waters southwest of Portugal was donated to the Yale Peabody Museum by Professor Talbot Waterman.
Keith S. Thomson, appointed Assistant Curator of Zoology in 1965, took over the care of the fish collection. Among the areas studies by Professor Thomson’s graduate students were atherinids and cyprinodontids of the eastern U.S.; African Great Lake cichlids; African and South American lungfishes; and fossil fishes. During Thomson’s tenure the Museum acquired a frozen coelacanth, which allowed for new studies on the biochemistry and histology of this unusual fish. Kenneth McKaye served as Assistant Curator of Vertebrate Zoology from 1975 to 1978.
In 2001 the new opened on the site of the Bingham Lab, adjacent to the Peabody Museum.
Adapted from Postilla 206: List of type specimens in the fish collection at the Yale Peabody Museum, with a brief history of ichthyology at Yale University, by J.A. Moore and R.E. Boardman, 1991.