William Beebe

William Beebe (1877-1962) was a naturalist, ocean ographer, ornithologist, and an executive of the New York Zoological Society. With Otis Barton, he was the first to use the bathysphere, a deep-sea diving device, and set a dive record in 1934 that was not broken until 1949. Beebe wrote over 800 articles and 24 books on natural history.

Beebe was the son of Charles Beebe, a paper company executive, and Henrietta Marie Younglove. He was born in Brooklyn, New York on July 29, 1877. When Beebe was a small child, his family moved to East Orange, New Jersey, where he experienced a happy childhood and was able to expand his innate interest in the outdoors. He was deeply interested in birds, and his first publication was a letter to the editor of Harper's Young People in 1895. His parents, particularly his mother, encouraged his interest in natural history.

New York Zoological Society

Beebe took extra science classes at East Orange High School and entered Columbia University as a special student in zoology in 1896. He was not a degree candidate, although later in life he would claim that he earned a B.S. Beebe was deeply influenced by Henry Fairfield Osborn, a professor at Columbia. In 1899, when the New York Zoological Society began looking for an assistant curator of birds, Osborn suggested that they appoint Beebe. Osborn was vice-president of the Society, and three years later, Beebe was given the post. According to David Goddard in Saving Wildlife: A Century of Conservation, this began "an epochal association for the New York Zoological Society, which was to find in William Beebe a defining genius, and an epochal tie for William Beebe, who was to find in the Society a lifelong champion and home." On August 2, 1902, Beebe married Mary Blair Rice. They did not have children, and were divorced in 1913.

Although Beebe seemed perfectly suited to his new job, he was not happy with it. He was interested in field research, and the job was a largely indoor one, dealing with caged birds. In 1900 he began taking field trips throughout the eastern United States and Canada. Osborn supported these trips, but William Temple Hornaday, the zoo director, objected to them because Beebe was absent so much. They found a replacement, Lee Crandall, who could do Beebe's work while he was gone, and he was allowed to continue his travels. His first book, which he wrote with his wife, was titled Two Bird Lovers in Mexico and was published in 1905. His first scientific work was The Bird, Its Form and Function, published in 1906. By 1955, Beebe had written 22 more books, some for the general public, others aimed at scientists. Many were so popular that they were translated into several languages. Goddard noted, "His elegant prose is everywhere infused with an empathy for animals and a cosmic sense of the interconnectedness of life. … With a naked curiosity and never-failing reverence he probed the bodies and pondered the minds and souls of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish, and invertebrates, looking for connections."

In 1909, Anthony R. Kuser, a wealthy New Jersey businessman, commissioned Beebe to write a monograph on the pheasants of the world. Beebe spent several years doing research on pheasants, mainly in Southeast Asia. World War I caused publication of the work to be delayed. It was finally published in four volumes between 1918 and 1922, According to Keir B. Sterling in the Dictionary of American Biography, one authority of the time described A Monograph of the Pheasants as "perhaps the greatest ornithological monograph of the present century."

Began Tropical Research

Beebe traveled to Trinidad, Venezuela, Brazil and British Guiana. In 1916, he established the New York Zoological Society's Department of Tropical Research in Bartica, British Guiana. He was director of the department, as well as honorary curator of birds at the New York Zoo. The tropical research program, which was later moved to Kartabo, operated until 1922.

In 1917 and 1918, while World War I raged, Beebe enlisted in the French Aviation Service. His service was ended by a wrist injury sustained in a fall, so he went back to British Guiana to collect small mammals for the New York Zoo. Later, he visited the Galapagos Islands. On this trip, he went helmet diving to study marine species in their own habitat. In 1927 he studied fish and coral near Haiti. In September of that year, he married Elswyth Thane Ricker, a writer. They did not have children.

In 1928, Beebe founded a tropical research station in Nonsuch, Bermuda, in buildings that had previously been used as quarantine huts for yellow fever patients. At Nonsuch, he set out on his tugboat, collecting sea creatures with nets, or descending below the surface with a copper diving helmet, breathing air through an ordinary hose. However, these expeditions were unsatisfying, because deep-sea creatures are often mutilated by changes in pressure when they are brought up from the depths, and he wanted to watch them living their lives in their own habitat. The problem with doing this is that as one descends deeper into the ocean, the pressure of the water becomes too great for a human being to withstand. For example, at only a half a mile down, the ocean pressure is over half a ton for every square inch of a person's body. Because of this, the deepest anyone had ever gone in the ocean at that time was 525 feet.

Beebe had previously discussed this problem with Theodore Roosevelt, who suggested diving while inside the protection of a rigid metal sphere. In 1929, American inventor Otis Barton had designed and created a diving device that was a round metal sphere with two inset portholes. This device, which Beebe eventually called a "bathysphere," weighed 5,000 pounds, was four feet nine inches in diameter, and had walls that were an inch and a half thick. Inside, there was just enough room for two men to crouch tightly together. The two portholes were made of three-inch-thick fused quartz, a clear mineral that is stronger than glass. The bathysphere had an air supply, electric lights, and a telephone line for communications with the surface.

Descended into Ocean Depths

Beebe teamed up with Barton to make over 30 descents into the ocean. Their first dive was to 800 feet, a record. On June 11, 1930, they dropped to 1,426 feet. During the dive, they were connected to the surface by a cable and a telephone hookup, and millions of listeners eagerly awaited the news from a place so deep that no human being had ever been there before. As they dropped, Beebe took a position at the window, and Barton watched over the instruments and put on the earphones that allowed them to communicate with people on the surface. Beebe commented on each depth; for example, he noted at 383 feet, "We are passing the deepest submarine record," and at 600 feet, "Only dead men have sunk below this." Beebe was thrilled to write at a depth of a quarter of a mile, in the pitch-black ocean, "A luminous fish is outside the window." He later wrote, "I knew that I should never again look upon the stars without remembering their active, living counterparts swimming about in that terrific pressure." He frequently compared the exploration of the ocean deeps to that of space, and never lost his sense of wonder about being involved in such exploration.

In 1934 Beebe and Barton descended to a record depth of 3,028 feet in 1934; this record was not beaten until 1949. This dive generated a great deal of interest and publicity, but Beebe was more interested in its scientific value. Using the bathysphere, he discovered and described species of sea life that were previously unknown. Beebe also studied changes in water color resulting from the loss of surface light at greater depths. He was fascinated with the use of such technology to allow humans to penetrate places that were unreachable without it. According to Jean Ann Pollard, Beebe wrote in 1934 that one day, "a human face will peer out through a tiny window and signals will be passed back to companions, or to breathlessly waiting hosts on earth, with such sentences as: 'We are above the level of Everest,' 'Can now see the whole Atlantic coastline,' 'Clouds blot out the earth."'

However, Beebe ultimately discovered that he could learn more by wearing a diving helmet and exploring shallower water, where he would observe sea creatures in great detail. He continued his oceanographic research in Baja California and along the Pacific Coast of Central America. He was the first well-known and well-trained scientist to use helmet-diving as a part of his field research.

In 1942 the New York Zoological Society reestablished its tropical research unit in Venezuela. In 1948, Beebe bought 228 acres of land in Simla, in the Arima Valley of Trinidad, and founded a research station there. Although he officially retired from his post as director of tropical research in 1952, he worked at Simla for part of each year until his death on June 4, 1962. The property was deeded to the New York Zoological Society.

Beebe's Legacy

Beebe was given honorary Sc.D. degrees from Colgate and Tufts. He discovered hundreds of animals, many of which were named for him, and one bird, but much of his scientific work has since become obsolete. However, Goddard noted, he was the world's first "neotropical ecologist." According to Sterling, Beebe was a demanding boss to subordinates, but balanced his high standards with a good sense of humor. His major contributions were "the breadth and detail of his field observations, his emphasis upon the interrelationships of living forms, his abiding concern with conservation, and the felicity with which he expressed himself in his writings." Another great gift was his ability to make natural history accessible and interesting to the general public. Perhaps because of this, Sterling noted, he was not recognized as a major figure in science despite his wide-ranging knowledge and publications. Sterling wrote, "Doubtless many [other scientists] were reluctant to accord serious standing to a successful populizer." Sterling also noted that Theodore Roosevelt wrote of Beebe's book Jungle Peace, "It will stand on the shelves of cultivated people, of people whose taste in reading is both wide and good, as long as both men and women appreciate charm of form in the writing of men."

Beebe summed up the value of nature and the necessity for conservation in The Bird (1906), when he wrote, "The beauty and genius of a work of art may be reconceived, though its first material expression be destroyed; a vanished harmony may yet again inspire the composer; but when the last individual of a race of living beings breathes no more, another heaven and another earth must pass before such a one can be again."


Biographical Dictionary of American and Canadian Naturalists and Environmentalists, edited by Keir Sterling, Richard P. Hurmond, George A. Cevasco, and Lorne P. Hammond, Greenwood Press, 1997.

Dictionary of American Biography, Supplement 7, 1961-1965, edited by John A. Garrity, Charles Scribners Sons, 1981.

National Cyclopedia of American Biography, James T. White and Co., 1927.

Saving Wildlife: A Century of Conservation, edited by Donald Goddard, Wildlife Conservation Society and Harry N. Abrams, 1995.


Sea Frontiers, August, 1994.