MURPHY, ROBERT CUSHMAN

1887 - 1973 from United States


American ornithologist, was born in Brooklyn, New York on 29 April 1887 son of Thomas D Murphy, a secondary school official, and Augusta Cushman. As a child on Long Island he showed interest in nature and the sea, then went on to study at Brown University in Providence Rhode Island, where he met his future wife Grace Alison Barstow. They had three children.

After graduation, Murphy signed on the whaling brig Daisy (Benjamin D Cleveland, master) as assistant navigator. Actually, he was an ornithologist supported jointly by the American Museum of Natural History in New York and the Brooklyn Museum. The Daisy was perhaps the last of the old free-for-all New England sailing vessels, taking whatever whales and seals its crew could find at sea or ashore. It reached South Georgia on 24 November 1912 and worked the Bay of Isles and Possession Bay from 15 December to 14 March 1913. Murphy had a boat of his own and for most of the time a work tent ashore, but he always returned to the ship at night. He rowed alone to Albatross Island and with sealers to distant beaches, witnessing the indiscriminate and illegal killing of female and young elephant seals. He described the 11 month cruise in Logbook for Grace (1947), dedicated to the newly-wed wife he had left at home, and later published photographs taken during the voyage in A Dead Whale or a Stove Boat (1967).

The field work and collection of sea birds Murphy made during the voyage of the Daisy set his career in the direction it would follow for the rest of his life, firstly at the Brooklyn Museum and then at the American Museum of Natural History. Generous endowments from wealthy business men enabled the AMNH to charter vessels, keep professional collectors like Rollo Beck at sea and buy up the Rothschild and other collections when they came on the market, creating the foremost collection of sea birds in the world.

Murphy's expeditions to the guano islands of Peru and his many publications were crowned by his two volumes of The Oceanic Birds of South America (1936), widely recognised as the founding work of sea bird science. In 1970, 58 years after the Daisy, he returned to South Georgia and three year later died on 20 March 1973.

Authors

RW Burton & WLN Tickell