How one Devon Man Followed his Passions and Became one of the Area’s Leading Ornithologists
Rodolphe Meyer de Schauensee went on to serve as the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences’ curator of birds for nearly 50 years.
Skinning a bird is a delicate task—one that bird hunter Rodolphe Meyer de Schauensee of Devon, was very familiar with. A self-trained expert, de Schauensee was the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences’ curator of birds for nearly 50 years. He wrote six major classification books and contributed to more than 100 publications.
During his time with ANS, the institution’s collection of bird skins grew from about 80,000 to more than 170,000, many of them collected by de Schauensee himself. He worked carefully with small scissors, scalpels, brushes, cotton balls and chemicals to collect the specimens. Occasionally, he also used a frying pan and a bit of curry.
“Rudy ended up being very generous to the academy as a whole and to its bird department in particular,” recalled his successor, Robert Ridgley. “He was responsible for the acquisition of large and very important collections. A great man.”
Born in Rome, Italy, de Schauensee was the son of a Swiss baron, Frederick Meyer von Schauensee, and the Philadelphia-born Matilda Toland. De Schauensee’s paternal ancestors had owned a castle, Schloss Schauensee, near Lucerne, Switzerland, since 1750, where he spent several summers. His branch of the family, however, had moved to Rome decades before his birth, following the Pope.
Grandfather Leopold Meyer von Schauensee had been commander of the Pontifical Swiss Guard. Leopold’s grandfather, Franz Leopold Meyer von Schauensee, had also held the position. In 1858, he had been responsible for reorganizing the unit after its suppression during one of Italy’s revolutions.
In 1913, de Schauensee’s parents separated. Matilda, de Schauensee and another son, Max, came to Philadelphia. In 1920, all resided with her widowed father, a retired director of Girard Bank, in a brick townhouse on Spruce Street. They later settled in Wynnewood and de Schauensee attended the private Episcopal Hoosac School in New York.
Both brothers pursued their passions. For Max, it was opera. Though he didn’t make it as a tenor as he’d hoped, he was the music critic for the Philadelphia Bulletin from the 1940s to the 1970s.
In the face of Philadelphia’s indifference, Max was a crusader for locally produced opera. “Such local stars as the beautiful young Anna Moffo of Wayne appear with the Philadelphia Grand Opera or the Lyric to great acclaim,” wrote historian Nathaniel Burt in 1964. “And all the Old Philadelphians, though Max de Schauensee scolds them regularly in his column in the Bulletin, stay away. To them, ‘opera’ has meant the Met and nothing but the Met.”
While Max pursued music, his brother was interested in birds—though why is unclear. Among birders, Rome is best known for starlings, whose vast swarms the ancients once watched to determine the moods of the gods. Instead, de Schauensee’s passion was for tropical birds, for which he created an aviary at his mother’s house.
Eventually, this interest led him to the Academy of Natural Sciences. Its collection of mostly American birds had been built by amateur gentlemen ornithologists—John James Audubon, in particular—in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Tropical birds were few.
During this time, the extremely wealthy de Schauensee, along with wife Williamina Wentz, settled on a 23-acre site in Devon, where they built a mansion with 14 bedrooms, 10 bathrooms and a two-story ballroom, staffed by 14 people. Set behind a pair of wrought-iron gates on South Devon Avenue, they filled the place with Picassos, Renoirs and plenty of silver. After using the interior as an aviary, de Schauensee later had to replace the wooden banisters with metal after his birds pecked holes in them.
After their deaths—and a preliminary four-month display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art—the de Schauensee’s collection of pre-revolutionary French silver was sold by Christie’s for $2 million in 72 lots. “When [a Christie’s rep] took the collection to Paris for exhibition, he said connoisseurs were stunned,” reported the Baltimore Sun. “’Who were the de Schauensees? Where was all this?,’ they asked.”
Williamina de Schauensee left the art museum three large bell-shaped silver dish covers from the so-called Orloff service commissioned by Russian Empress Catherine the Great.
This wealth also allowed de Schauensee to become one of what Ridgeley called the “dollar-a-year men.” Dollar-a-year men worked, essentially, for free—donors, but of time, expertise and personal resources. The token one-dollar salary established an employer-employee relationship.
What de Schauensee eventually worked out with the academy was an agreement to expand the scope of its bird collection at his expense. He planned and funded the expeditions, identified and gathered the specimens, and oversaw their mounting and interpretation. In exchange, the academy gave de Schauensee its imprimatur, a significant asset for a Westerner trying to enter Asian and Latin American nations with his specially fitted Purdey shotgun.
Academy clout proved useful on de Schauensee’s first expedition with Bond in 1926. In Brazil, they explored the mouth of the Amazon, near Belem. Though now threatened by development, the region has long been a paradise for birding.
Working together, de Schauensee and Bond gathered many live animals, including birds and snakes, plus more than 500 bird skins. They didn’t make it home initially, having been lost by the shipper en route.
“The box has not yet arrived, and I am unable to get any definite word as to what you are doing in the matter by phoning to your office,” Witmer Stone, an academy vice president, scolded the F.B. Vandegrift shipping company. “All that I learn is that you understand they are doing what they can to look after it in New York. I should like to have something more definite and wish to say that the service rendered on this occasion is very unsatisfactory.”
The shipment eventually turned up, and de Schauensee got a first-hand example of the importance of having an influential cultural institution behind him. Collecting biological specimens was an enormously informal process. He simply had to catch them, kill them, preserve them and get them back to Philadelphia.
In Guatemala in 1935, while gathering fish specimens for academy ichthyologist Henry Fowler, de Schauensee wrote home to beg for poison. “I met a ‘fish man’ from the University of Michigan, a Dr. Hubbs, and he told me that he had fish poison with him which was sold in the U.S. as an insecticide,” wrote de Schauensee. “If Fowler can find out what it is, I should be grateful for a small amount by airmail sent to the Gran Hotel, Guatemala City. There is a catfish in the stream but it has been too quick for us to date. That is where the poison would come in handy.”
In Bali, a native passed on a secret to attract fish. “I made a collection of fish—300 or 400—in which there must be at least 50 new genera,” he wrote to Fowler. “I got some in the market, some at the sea shore, some at a freshwater lake where I fished for them myself with a hook baited with rice with a sauce on it given me by a native and guaranteed to attract fish for miles around.”
Mostly, though, de Schauensee prowled the backcountry with his shotgun, blasting at birds. From Thailand in 1928, he wrote of his latest find. “I got a beauty yesterday,” he wrote to Stone. “Some kind of a broadbill, with a sky blue and orange beak, yellow legs and blue nails to match the bill. I shot it in very thick cover not knowing what it was. It took 10 minutes to find it, but I got quite a kick out of it when I did.”
De Schauensee wrote of finding more interesting birds in remote highlands than in settled lowlands. Freshly descended from a Thai peak, he related to Stone: “I first spent five days at 4,000 feet, then with two carriers went up to the top and stayed there as long as our food lasted, four days.”
Actually, thanks to a pile of freshly skinned birds, he was able to stay a bit longer. “The last night I had curried laughingthrushes and barbets as there was nothing else.”
It seems hunters do what they need to do.