Paul Bartsch, 1871–1960

By Harald A. Rehder

Extracted from Journal of Conchology, Volume 25, pp. 41–43
Paul Bartsch
The passing of Paul Bartsch at the age of 88, marks, in a fashion, the end of an era in American malacology, for he was the last of those whose scientific activities spanned the last and present centuries.
Dr. Bartsch was born on 14 August 1871 in Tuntschendorf, a small village north-east of Glatz in Silesia, Germany (now in Poland). At the age of 10 he accompanied his parents, Henry and Anna (Klein) Bartsch to America, where they settled, first in Missouri, and then near Burlington, Iowa. As a schoolboy Bartsch was intensely interested in nature, roaming the fields and the Mississippi river valley near his home particularly observing the birds of the region. Early in life he learned to mount birds and prepare skins, of which he accumulated a considerable collection.
Entering the State University of Iowa at Iowa City in 1893, Bartsch came into close contact with many distinguished teachers, from whom he received not only a broad basic training in all fields of biology but much encouragement and sound advice. His energy, enthusiasm, and dedication to the acquisition of knowledge led to his completing his college work in three years save for one-half a credit. Thus, when in 1896 Dr. William H. Dall, then Honorary Curator of Mollusks at the U.S. National Museum, wrote to Professor C. C. Nutting. the distinguished authority on hydroids, and one of Bartsch’s teachers, telling him of his need for an assistant, Bartsch was the man whom Nutting recommended.
In April 1896 Bartsch came to Washington and started work as Aide in the Division of Mullusks. In spite of the lack of a half-credit the University of Iowa gave him the bachelor degree that June, and in 1899 he received his master’s degree. For six years he worked on his doctoral thesis, and in 1905 the same University awarded him the Ph.D. degree.
Because his interests and writings up to that time had been largely ornithological, it was not until 1902 that he published his first scientific notes on mollusks. During these early years he did much of the curatorial work in the division, and assisted Dr. Dall in his researches. When the opportunity arose to transfer to the Division of Birds he turned it down, feeling that there was a greater future for original work in the field of malacology. He never lost his interest, however, in ornithology, bringing back bird skins, ornithological notes. and bird photographs from all of his many trips. He was the first person in America to undertake scientific bird-banding.
In 1905 he became Assistant Curator, and two years later, from November 1907 to July 1908, he spent about nine months in the Philippines as naturalist on the Bureau of Fisheries steamer Albatross. In those months Bartsch gathered together, personally and through his assistants and native collectors, what was probably the largest collection of mollusks ever made on a single expedition, and in addition brought back quantities of other marine animals.
It was the first of numerous trips he made to various parts of the tropics, and his only one to the Old World. All his others were to the warm parts of the Americas, and from each one he brought back much material. He was a tireless worker in the field, and inspired others to work with him hard and long. In 1911 he was in the Gulf of California, and in 1912 in the Bahamas, the first of many visits to the Caribbean area. In the course of these trips Bartsch visited almost every island, large and small, in the West Indies, and the material he brought back from these expeditions resulted in the publications he wrote, together with his friend Carlos de la Torre, on the Annulariidae of Cuba, the Bahamas and Hispaniola, and the Cyclophoridae of the Americas; the manuscript that they prepared on the Urocoptidae of Cuba still awaits publication. The marine mollusks of the Caribbean also claimed his attention; the Johnson-Smithsonian Deep Sea Expedition, of which he was the director, explored the Puerto Rican Deep, and brought back a great variety of marine life, that resulted in 32 papers, containing descriptions of 26 new genera and subgenera and 135 new species.
Early in his malacological career Bartsch made a special study of the Pyramidellidae, led to this difficult group of mollusks through assisting Dr. Dall with the Californian species of this family. It is an interesting fact that the last major work that Dr. Bartsch published dealt with the members of this family in the Florida Pliocene. Other groups of mollusks on which he worked were the minute marine mollusks of the west coast of America, the land snails of the Philippines, the shipworms, and the snails involved as intermediate hosts in schistosomiasis. In all of these fields he made lasting contributions, as his more than 450 papers testify. A member of many scientific organizations, he was a life member of the Conchological Society of Great Britain and Ireland, having been elected in 1907.
Besides his official duties with the Smithsonian Institution, Dr. Bartsch had many outside interests. For thirty-seven years he was in charge of histology courses at the Howard University Medical School, and for forty years he gave courses in zoology and field ornithology at the George Washington University, initiating the graduate work in the natural sciences there in 1912. These teaching duties were carried on outside of his regular hours at the museum, a schedule that would have taxed the strength of most men. In later years Bartsch took great pride in the success of his graduate students in the scientific world, and would tell with pleasure of meeting former students of his from Howard University in responsible positions in islands he visited during his West Indian trips.
Young people also felt the impact of his teaching and enthusiasm. especially in connection with his interest in scouting, where he was actively involved in the promotion of adequate facilities and opportunities for nature study. In his last years he took particular pleasure in talking to the groups of Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts who during good weather came almost every weekend to Lebanon to see the plants, birds and other wildlife of the area. Bartsch was vitally interested in all forms of conservation of nature’s resources and beauties, and was a member of numerous societies devoted to this cause.
He retired in 1946 from his duties at the Smithsonian Institution to his 458-acre estate Lebanon on the Potomac River at Lorton, Virginia, some twenty-five miles below Washington. Here he and his wife, a practising physician who survives him, laid out flower gardens, transformed a stream-carved ravine into the beautiful and locally well-known “Fern Valley,” and turned the largely wooded estate into a wild-life sanctuary. Here at his desk by the picture window of his large study, added as a wing to the 230-year old mansion, he could look out over the gardens to the waters of Pohick Bay, and watch the hundreds of birds that came to the feeding places outside the window. On 24 April 1960, among these beauties of nature that he loved so well, he passed away, full of years and honours, his memory indelibly enshrined in the hearts and minds of all who knew him.