Celebrating 100 Years
Herbert Friedmann: An Expert in Parasitic Birds
Herbert Friedmann (1900-1987), an ornithologist specializing in African and American parasitic birds, worked at the Smithsonian for more than thirty years. He received the Ph.D. from Cornell University in 1923, and then spent the next two years on a postdoctoral fellowship, much of which was devoted to fieldwork, in Argentina (1923-24), on the Mexican border (May 1924), and in Africa (1924-25). The photographs he took in Africa later became part of the working files of Gordon Davis Gibson, the U.S. National Museum (USNM) Department of Anthropology’s first curator of African ethnology. Friedmann was appointed Curator in the Division of Birds in the USNM in 1929. His dissertation, which focused on cowbirds—who practice brood parasitism, laying their eggs in other birds’ nests and forcing the birds to raise their young for them—was published in book form that same year and has continued to serve as a key reference on the subject, having been updated and reissued several times.
(Use the player on the right to listen to Friedmann describe what the Museum was like when he arrived in September 1929, shortly before the stock market crash that launched the Great Depression.Also listen to Friedmann describe the arrival of the first female typist in his department and the atmosphere in the Museum then. At that time, every curator had a cuspidor, or spittoon, in their office.)
One of his first projects with the Division of Birds was an attempt to complete Robert Ridgway’s monumental work, The Birds of North and Middle America. Ridgway had published eight volumes during his lifetime; Friedmann published three additional volumes, in 1941, 1946, and 1950.
During World War II, he published a pamphlet on the natural history of camouflage, which was distributed as part of a War Background Series.
In 1957, Friedmann was made Head Curator of the Department of Zoology in the USNM, just as the Smithsonian was undertaking an institution-wide Exhibits Modernization Program. He oversaw the reinstallation of a new Bird Hall.
(Use the player on the right to listen to Friedmann talk about making new exhibits.)
He left the Institution in 1961 and headed to California, where he guided the final stages of the transformation of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, History and Science into the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History. He was made emeritus director upon his retirement in 1970. He soon thereafter went to Antarctica for the National Science Foundation, to evaluate biological research programs there.
Friedmann enjoyed a life-long interest in art, and he published several volumes on the use of animal and bird symbolism in medieval and Renaissance art, including a work on the goldfinch in European devotional art. His last work, The Bestiary of Saint Jerome: Animal Symbolism in European Religious Art, was published in 1980.
Herbert Friedmann's obituary in The New York Times
A memoir about Friedmann by Secretary S. Dillon Ripley, who came to the Smithsonian in 1941 and worked under Friedmann
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