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"Fieldwork is the Lifeblood of Museums": Remembering Alfred M. Bailey

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Tags: Alfred M. Bailey, Chicago Academy of Sciences, history, ornithology

Created: 2/16/2015      Updated: 8/2/2016

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If you're familiar with the Chicago Academy Sciences and our history, then chances are good that you've heard the name Alfred M. Bailey before. For just shy of a decade, Bailey was Director of the Academy, and added some invaluable specimens to our ornithology collection...but who exactly was he?

Edward Ford, Alfred M. Bailey and William I. Lyon standing on a pier

Edward Ford, Alfred M. Bailey and William I. Lyon
Chicago Academy of Sciences Archive, Photography Collection.

Alfred Marshall Bailey was born on this day in 1894 in Iowa City, Iowa. He graduated from the University of Iowa in 1916, and as an undergrad worked in a government-sponsored expedition to the Hawaiian Island of Laysan. From here, he quickly became involved in the world of museums. From 1916 to 1919 he worked as the curator of birds and mammals at the Louisiana State Museum, and from 1921 to 1926 he worked at the Denver Museum of Natural History, before making the move to the Midwest.

In 1926, Bailey came to Chicago to join the Field Museum, but after a year, he made the move to the Chicago Academy of Sciences where he was appointed Director of the Academy. During the nine years he spent as Director, Bailey continued to focus on ornithology, organizing trips back to Louisiana to capture still and motion photography of migrating birds. He also organized trips to Alaska and, working with collectors there, collected birds and bird eggs. This culminated in the publication of the Academy’s Program of Activities “Birds of the Region of Point Barrow, Alaska” in 1933.

Alfred M. Bailey in a field filming birds in Louisiana.

Alfred M. Bailey (with camera) filming birds in Louisiana. 
Chicago Academy of Sciences Archive, Photography Collection.

When Bailey resigned from the Academy, he returned to the Denver Museum of Natural History where he was appointed Director, a position he held until 1969. He remained involved with the Denver Museum until his death in 1978.

In his obituary for Bailey, Allan R. Phillips detailed that Bailey’s credo was “fieldwork is the lifeblood of natural history museums and he himself was a leading fieldman.” This extensive fieldwork not only produced Academy publications, it also resulted in some prized pieces of our ornithology collection. Some of the specimens in our collection were collected as part of Bailey’s work to document avian diversity in his book Birds of Arctic Alaska. In addition to those specimens, we also have a large number of Bailey’s photographs in our archives that were taken during his trips across the United States and Canada. To see some of them, check out this blog post.

To learn more about Bailey’s life and work, check out these resources:

Allan R. Phillips, “In Memoriam: Alfred M. Bailey”, The Auk Vol. 98, No. 1 (Jan., 1981), pp. 173-175

Papers of Alfred M. Bailey – University of Iowa Libraries

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