Celebrating 100 Years
Watson Perrygo: Taxidermist and Field-Collector
Watson Perrygo (1906-1984), often known as “Perry,” was a taxidermist, field collector, and exhibits specialist for the U.S. National Museum (today the National Museum of Natural History). A protégé of Alexander Wetmore (an ornithologist and director of the Museum who later became Secretary of the Smithsonian), Perrygo began his career at the Smithsonian in 1927. He was a highly able “tinkerer,” who could prepare lifelike animal specimens for display, create “snow” in an exhibit diorama from Epsom salts, and restore an antique piano, a mantel clock or a colonial mansion. He grew up in nearby Maryland and starting hanging around the Museum helping curators when he was a boy.
He went on many collecting expeditions for the museum, including two trips to Haiti, in 1929 and again in 1930 with the Parish-Smithsonian expedition. He collected in West Virginia in 1936, in Tennessee a year later, in Kentucky in 1938, in North Carolina in 1939, and in South Carolina in 1940. As assistant to Remington Kellogg, an expert in fossil marine mammals who later became director of the Museum, Perrygo went to Rampart Cave in Arizona in 1942 to excavate sloth fossils and the skeletal remains of several species of mammals, birds, lizards, and snakes.
In the late 1940s and 1950s, he traveled annually to Panama with Wetmore, to collect birds—work that culminated in Wetmore's massive four-volume Birds of the Republic of Panama.
Perrygo was part of a large group of preparators working at the Museum and worked on the Fénykővi Elephant in the 1950s. He was especially proud of the hippo, mounted in the early 1930s—an animal, like many creatures who live in water, that is particularly challenging to preserve.
Perrygo played an important role in the exhibitions modernization program in the 1950s and 1960s at the Smithsonian. He was in charge of taxidermy for the natural history museum from 1962 until his retirement in 1964 and prepared many of the mounts for the dioramas of the new Mammal Hall.
His oral history interviews and papers are located at the Smithsonian Archives.
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