By The Editors / November / December 2000
October 24th, 2007

Robert Cushman Murphy ’11

You could almost say that robert cushman murphy, one of the century’s great ornithologists, persuaded Rachel Carson to write Silent Spring. When Murphy became a leader among a handful of Long Island residents unable to get the government to stop spraying their land with DDT, Carson heard about it and wrote E.B. White at the New Yorker to propose an article about the toxic effects of the chemical. The article turned into Silent Spring.

For sixty years Murphy, an Indiana Jones among bird experts, roamed the globe in search of new and rare avian species, mostly as a curator of birds for the Museum of Natural History in New York City. His 1936 masterpiece, Oceanic Birds of South America, was a breakthrough in demonstrating a close relationship between birds and their environment; it was awarded the prestigious John Burroughs Medal for excellence in natural history and the Brewster Medal of the American Ornithologists Union. In his travels, Murphy uncovered the bones of the extinct moa in New Zealand, and on Bermuda in 1951 he slipped a noose onto a pole, slid it down a tunnel between some oceanside rocks, and pulled out a sea bird called a cahow, the first live member of that species seen since the early seventeenth century.

Murphy was fond of telling people that a type of louse had been named after him, as well as a fish, a plant, a lizard, an Antarctic inlet, a spider, and two mountains. The louse, he explained, was a feather louse, “very partial to the albatross.” He added: “As a scientist, I’d as soon have a louse named for me as a mountain.”

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November / December 2000