The earliest specimens in the Yale Peabody Museum’s Division of Vertebrate Zoology fishes collection date to the late 1840s and the small zoology collections known as the Yale College Cabinet overseen by James D. Dana, and later by Addison E. Verrill.
On Verrill’s arrival at Yale in 1864, he began to “overhaul, catalogue, label and generally put in shape the small existing collection of zoological specimens and to add to it as rapidly as possible.” By 1866, the year the Yale Peabody Museum was founded, the collections already included specimens from the South China Sea and South America; specimens received in exchange from the Smithsonian Institution; and extensive collections from Panama and Peru.Verrill and his students were also collecting from all over New England. By 1870, additional collections arrived from Brazil, Florida, and the Virgin Islands. Verrill made 2 collecting trips to Bermuda, in 1898 and 1901, and his son A. Hyatt Verrill visited Dominica Island in 1906. These trips produced good collections, but were the last major contributions to the ichthyology collection for several decades.
The next phase of ichthyological research at Yale was initiated by Yale graduate Harry Payne Bingham, a New York City businessman who sponsored 3 oceanographic expeditions in the 1920s to obtain specimens for his own private research collection. Bingham selected Albert E. Parr, soon to be Assistant Curator of Zoology at the Peabody, to curate his growing fish collection, and also established the Bulletin of the Bingham Oceanographic Collection to publish research. In 1930, Bingham donated the entire collection to the Yale Peabody Museum and set up the Bingham Oceanographic Foundation at Yale to continue research and publication on marine biology and oceanography.
In 1937, with a gift from Henry Sears, who had studied oceanography at Yale, Parr established the Sears Foundation for Marine Research to promote research and publication in marine sciences. Its Journal of Marine Research and the Memoirs of the Sears Foundation of Marine Research (including the series Fishes of the Western North Atlantic) remain important references today.
Parr left in 1942, leaving behind a strong legacy in deep sea ichthyology. His successor as director of the Bingham Oceanographic Laboratory was his student, Daniel Merriman, whose interests were in fisheries and applied aspects of marine biology. After World War II Merriman launched collecting expeditions to Nepal (1947), New Zealand (1948), Kenya (1950), Alaska (1951), Peru and Guyana (1953), and Sri Lanka, Maldives, Seychelles, and the Chagos Archipelago (1957).
The Bingham Oceanographic Laboratory 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! In 1959, a new Bingham Lab building opened on Sachem Street next to the Peabody Museum, and the integration of the Bingham Oceanographic Collection with the Peabody’s fishes was begun.
Keith S. Thomson, appointed Assistant Curator of Zoology in 1965, took over the care of the fish collection. During his 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 Class of 1954 Environmental Science Center opened on the site of the Bingham Lab, adjacent to the Peabody Museum.
For a more detailed history of the 20th century ichthyology collection at the Peabody, see 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.