Robert Cushman Murphy Collection
Papers, circa. 1895-1965.
4 cubic ft.
Naturalist, scientist and environmentalist.
Correspondence, typescripts, photographs, negatives, notebooks, journals, book reviews
and slides concerning the worldwide travels and natural history studies of the Long
Island (NY) naturalist.
Scope and Content
Robert Cushman Murphy (b. 29 April 1887, d. 20 March 1973), ornithologist, was born
in Brooklyn, New York, the son of Thomas D. Murphy, a secondary-school official, and
Augusta Cushman. In his early years the family moved to a rural part of Long Island,
Mount Sinai, New York, to a home adjacent to Mount Sinai Harbor, where the boy, encouraged
by his parents, took an interest in the local wildlife. He enjoyed going out with
a local fisherman for bluefish, and he identified local birds. In 1906 he met Frank
Chapman, curator of birds at the American Museum of Natural History, who hired him
for a short time to proofread the galleys of his own book on warblers.
Murphy attended Brown University, where he received a Ph.B. in 1911. Earlier he had
become acquainted with Frederic Augustus Lucas, then curator of the museums of the
Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences. Lucas appointed Murphy curator of birds and
mammals at the institute in 1911 and arranged for him to sail, in 1912, as naturalist
on a New Bedford whaling ship, Daisy, to the subantarctic. Murphy married Grace Emeline
Barstow shortly before that one-year trip; the couple had three children.
The whaling trip gave Murphy an opportunity to observe and collect oceanic birds.
During its stop of almost four months for elephant seals on South Georgia Island,
he obtained specimens of penguins, other birds, marine mammals, and plants, which
were all to be deposited in the American Museum of Natural History.
On his return Murphy continued at the Brooklyn Institute, where he became head of
the Department of Natural History in 1917. That year he also received an M.A. in zoology
from Columbia University. In 1919-1920 he visited Peru for several months to observe
the guano-producing birds of the offshore islands.
In 1921 Murphy became associate curator at the American Museum of Natural History,
advanced to curator of oceanic birds in 1926, in 1942 became chairman of the Department
of Birds, and in 1949 was named Lamont Curator of Birds. His first book was Bird Islands
of Peru (1925). He organized an expedition to collect oceanic and coastal birds under
the leadership of Rollo H. Beck. Murphy's next scientific book was on these large
collections, The Oceanic Birds of South America (2 vols., 1936), which his biographer
Dean Amadon calls "noteworthy for its remarkably readable style." The scholarly treatise
included the effects of climate, currents, and land masses on the distribution of
oceanic birds, as well as general natural history and a detailed account of each bird
species and its habits, illustrated with photographs, color plates, and maps. The
book was awarded the John Burroughs Medal for excellence in natural history writing
and the Brewster Medal of the American Ornithologists Union.
In 1932 Murphy, assisted by his wife, cataloged and shipped to the United States the
very large collection of birds (280,000 specimens) accumulated by Lionel Walter Rothschild
in England; it had been sold to the American Museum of Natural History in 1931. Many
details about the collection were known only by Rothschild, so compiling the 740-page
catalog and the packing took the couple four months. Murphy was general manager of
the Whitney South Sea Expedition that operated for about a decade from 1935 on the
schooner France, although he was never able to join it himself. He was under pressure
at the museum to study the new collections quickly, and he was much aided in this
by biologist Ernst Mayr, a scientist destined for great eminence.
The family of philanthropist Harry Payne Whitney donated funds for a new wing of the
museum for the growing collections of birds. Murphy was extensively involved with
the supervision and construction of the Whitney Memorial Hall of Oceanic Birds. He
often helped create other exhibits for the museum and as a popular lecturer there
contributed to a rising interest in conservation. In addition he traveled extensively:
to Baja California, Mexico, Peru, and Ecuador three times, the western Mediterranean,
the archipelago of Las Perlas off Panama, New Zealand, and the subantarctic region
three times, and the Caribbean area several times. He obtained many new specimens
and considerable scientific information on habits and habitats of birds. According
to Mayr, "With iron self-discipline, no matter how strenuous the day, he recorded
his daily experiences in considerable detail in a diary, an extraordinarily valuable
record considering the drastic changes all of these places have experienced since
After retiring from the American Museum of Natural History in 1955, Murphy maintained
an office there for some years in an emeritus capacity. In 1960 he was representative
of the National Science Foundation and biologist on the icebreaker Glacier in the
Antarctic, and in 1970 he revisited South Georgia Island, which he had last seen in
Through the years he published nearly 600 articles in scientific journals and in popular
magazines, including Natural History, National Geographic, and Scientific Monthly.
In 1947 he published an account of his 1912 whaling voyage as Logbook for Grace, derived
from his original diary and letters to his wife. Well written, it primarily represents
Murphy's acceptance of the already declining whaling industry and his own enthusiasm
for gathering information on subantarctic birds and mammals. In A Dead Whale or a
Stove Boat (1967) he presented photographs of whaling that he had taken and developed
during the 1912 trip.
Murphy was an early conservationist who concentrated his continuing efforts on Long
Island, New York, where he and his family lived for many years. He was the first president
of the Long Island chapter of the Nature Conservancy, which obtained natural habitat
locally for preservation, and he was an adviser on the Fire Island National Seashore.
His book on the region, Fish Shape Paumanok: Nature and Man on Long Island, was published
in 1964. Having become well aware of the decline in whale populations through the
years, he also participated in efforts to save them.
Murphy received the Daniel Giraud Elliot Medal of the National Academy of Sciences
in 1943 and other scientific honors. He died on Long Island in 1973.
Source: American National Biography.
The Robert Cushman Murphy Collection was donated to Stony Brook University by Dr.
Murphy's daughter, Alison Connor, in 1975. It was processed by Alison Huftalen, Jason
Torre, and Kristen Nyitray in August 2004. Updated April 2014.
Scope and Content
The collection contains approximately 4 cubic feet of material, consisting of correspondence,
typescripts, photographs, negatives, notebooks, journals, book reviews and slides
and is arranged according to format. Items housed in acidic or metal housings have
been removed from these housings for preservation reasons. These materials have been
placed in acid free folders and containers. All metal clips have been removed and
replaced, in accordance with accepted archival standards of preservation.
Series I. - Slides
Series II. - Glass Plate Negatives
Series III. - Photographs and Negatives
Series IV. - Manuscripts and Letters
Series V. - Audio Recordings
Series VI. - Miscellaneous
Rights and Permissions
Stony Brook University Libraries' consent as the physical owner of the collection
does not address copyright issues that may affect publication rights. It is the sole
responsibility of the user of Special Collections and University Archives materials
to investigate the copyright status of any given work and to seek and obtain permission
where needed prior to publication.
SERIES I. SLIDES (Boxes 1-21)
Bahamas-Long Island 1958
Bahamas-Long Island 1959
Barro Colorado 1956
Tristan da Cunha
Guaymas etc. 1956
Malpelo Island/Choco Coast
Peru-Tacna Anca 1954?
Xochi Milco, 1956?
Peru & Chile 1954?
Peru-Architectural Ruins 1954
Peru-Boats and sea
Peru-Landscape, Aerial view
Japan-Tokyo 1956, New Years etc.
Stranger Cruise 1956
Stranger Cruise-Cocos Island
Stranger Cruise-Cedros Island, 1956
Internal Yacht Race 1959
Guano Birds 1954
England-Tring & Slimbridge? 1972
Deep Freeze/Glacier Cruise 1960
Family-Dierdre Murphy 1958
Family-Barnacle Bay 1950
Augusta Cushman Murphy 1945
GEBM Honorary Degree, Brown U. 1972
GEBM, San Juan Capistrano
Mathews Family-New Haven?
Mathews Family-Olympia Wash.
Briarlea and Home scenes
Briarlea and Home scenes
France and Briarlea
Local Long Island 1953-55
Riverdale NYC 1944
Block Island, RI 1953
Bull’s Island, 1952
Connecticut-New Haven Oct. 12, 1965
Delaware-Ducks & Geese
Elk Hill, PA - 1960
Elk Hill, PA – Nov. 14, 1965
Fisher’s Island/Block Island 1953?
Florida & Waverly 1959
Florida-Marineland, Preserve near Palm Beach
Hawk Mountain, 1954
Tucson, AZ and vicinity
Tucson, AZ 1968
Tucson, AZ ? 1969
Washington-Olympia, Elk Hill, Briarlea
Washington-Olympia with Alison Murphy Conner
Washington-Olympic National Park
Washington-Seattle, Lake Washington 1944
Wood’s Hole Cruise
9th Inning, Spring 1972
SERIES II. GLASS PLATE NEGATIVES (Box 22)
SERIES III. PHOTOGRAPHS & NEGATIVES (Boxes 23-26)
Total Envelopes: 36
(number of envelopes per subject in parenthesis)
Snares Penguins (3)
Snares Island, NZ
Aerial Photo, NZ
Milford Sound, NZ, 1948 (8)
Trip to England, 1927 (12)
Olympic National Park (5)
Total Envelopes: 19
Askoy Expedition (11)
Family & Friends (5)
Total Envelopes: 27
1 Framed Photo
Trip on Pee Dee R.
Choco Indians (2)
Maori Prints & Negatives (3)
Trip to S. Georgia Is.
Trip to India
Bird Island of Peru, 1920 (9)
Framed Photo – VII th International Congress of Zoology, August 27, 1907
Unidentified Boat Voyage (2)
Murphy at Congress
Negatives and Contact Sheets
Total Envelopes: 22
Acropolis, Athens – Aegean Voyage
India & Thailand
Karimojong, Uganda & Masai, Kenya
Nairobi & Amboseli, Kenya
Thailand – chiefly Bangkok
Thailand – Gulf of Thailand & Bangkok Canals
Family – Beach
Alison Barstow Murphy, Dec. 1929
Bob, Alison & Dorothea Dreier 1929/ Bob & Alison – Scotland 1926
SERIES IV. MANUSCRIPTS & LETTERS (Boxes 27-28)
Total Envelopes: 7
Research Notes regarding effects of DDT
Visit to the Philippines
Migrant Cruise, June-July 1933 (original and a copy)
Coast to Coast
Masters Thesis, James C. Murphy (binder)
Florida and the Gulf Stream 1937
SERIES V. AUDIO RECORDING
1 Record, 78 rpm
Mrs. Grace Murphy: “A Trip to Snares"
Digitized Version (2 CDs)
SERIES VI. MISCELLANEOUS
Wooden slide box