Wednesday, January 21, 2015


How do you explain a really exciting find?  And what if you make... three really exciting finds in one day going through Bancroft's Charles Melville Scammon papers?

The big thing, the holy grail, the "rosebud" of Scammon's later literary and scientific life, this is what I pulled out of a file envelope yesterday.

The seed of the great man's landmark work: the little three-inch by five-inch leather-bound, water-blood-and-oil-stained book of perfectly recorded measurements of whales, seals and dolphins collected in the torrent of bloody commercial slaughter that was our demand for whale oil.

Just to hold it in your hands and to think of what it took to make!  To think that Scammon, who, while commanding so many men and so many whaleboats through so much bloody chaos and fatigue, had the presence of mind to take these perfectly ordered notes.  Notes which no scientist had endeavored to collect, and which no whaler would ever conceive of collecting. 

And to synthesize, more than a decade later, those notes into a book that would change the way we looked at mammalian studies? 

I felt less elation than a sense of awe. Followed by the dreadful realization that a man with less than a high school education had managed what no modern Harvard grad, currently engaged in tweeting "pix" of his free lunch at the Google or Facebook corporate campuses, would even conceive of trying. We are not better men today, I am sorry to say. 

The other two finds were in many ways just as interesting, but more on that later.