NPR/NGS Radio Expeditions
15 Jul 1999
District of Columbia
- Washington, D.C.; National Public Radio
- 38.90213 -77.02079
Stereo=1; Dual-Channel Mono
Show: Geographic Century
Log of DAT #: John Fitzpatrick
ng = not good
ok = okay
g = good
vg = very good
Okay, let me go ahead and start here by asking you to identify yourself, okay?
I¿m John Fitzpatrick. I¿m currently the Director of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology.
And what was your connection with the station?
I began studying birds, Florida scrubjays, at Archbold Biological Station in 1972 as a college student during which that year and several other years afterwards I got to know Mr. Archbold and I¿ve worked there ever since in a long-term scientific project with Glen Wolfington on the life history of this endangered bird. In 1989 I became the Executive Director of Archbold and moved there in May of ¿89 and we stayed there until August of 1995. So I¿ve had a long time relationship with the station and was its director during the early 90s.
You suggested to me that, just in conversation, that we feature Mr. Archbold as one of our explorers. Why did you make that suggestion?
Well, I, Richard Archbold is one of the most colorful explorers of the 20th century and the amazing fact about this man is that very few people have ever heard of him in the United States or abroad. And this is a feature of his personality. He was a shy, very retiring person, particularly by day and somewhat self-effacing, even, and never, even during the heyday of his explorations in New Guinea, never was wont to aggrandize his own accomplishments and then later became, in a sense, an explorer of the US in ways that didn¿t ever get very popular, so contrary to the big explorers of the first part of the century, Archbold, who did some truly amazing things, revolutionary, pioneering things in the 1930s with aviation and with explorations of some of the most remote parts of the Earth, is largely unknown, so I thought in a series heralding the great pioneer explorations of the century, one would have to include this amazing man.
Let me ask you, you¿re a formally trained scientist and he was not. What kind of a scientist was he?
He was a naturalist. He always was interested in nature from very early in life. He was kind of a, sort of a troublemaking kid and did not do particularly well in school. In fact, left formal schooling after only grade 8 or 9 and was privately tutored, but always was in love with nature. He, his father had a beautiful plantation in southern Georgia where he loved to explore and so he fell in love in nature and wandering the woods very early in his life and his father also had an association with the American Museum of Natural History in New York, this great, one of the world¿s greatest natural history museums, of course, and this aided and abetted Archbold¿s curiosity in nature so that by the time Archbold was in his 20s, he was a known figure around the museum, in part because of his father, and so he was, he enjoyed the idea of exploring and began to talk about accompanying an expedition and in part with his family¿s wealth funding and expedition to Madagascar. And this really is what, what started his major career in scientific exploration, but as a trained scientist, he just, he wasn¿t one. What he knew very early in his life is that he loved to live around them and fell in love with helping scientists do their thing logistically and financially.
You go off on expeditions now, don¿t you, or you have from¿
I have done some expeditions myself. I¿ve had the privilege of working in some of the most remote parts of the New World tropics and in Peru particularly and discovered a few undescribed species of birds, been the first western fellow to walk on some mountain ridges in Peru, so I know a bit about what it¿s like to do these kinds of expeditions and when I read about the exploits of Archbold and Rand and Tate in New Guinea in the 1930s, it makes my hair stand on end. It was an amazing set of three expeditions that they took in New Guinea.
Tell me what you imagine these expeditions to, I guess you don¿t have to imagine because he told you about these expeditions, didn¿t he? You talked to him.
I did have the great privilege and pleasure as a college student of listening to Mr. Archbold talk about these trips during evening conversation sessions at the Archbold Biological Station and he was a colorful guy and had wonderful evening reveries about these times, which at that point were now 40 years back in his life and so, he described, I guess the one thing I remember most vividly of all, a story that we heard quite a few times through those years was his first daring landing on Lake Habima, which is 3000 meters up in the western highlands of New Guinea, when they were, they knew that they had to get into this lake at this very high elevation, an elevation at which no amphibious plane had ever landed in history and several times, because of bad weather, they had to abort the expeditions and then one time flying up above these clouds he spotted a hole and could see water down below and so he just simply put the plane into a dive and they went through this hole and landed on this beautiful, glimmering highland lake in western New Guinea, first time anybody had ever done such a thing. And that then, they proceeded to fly repeated expeditions back there and create a big camp in which they spent several months of very intensive exploration. This, that expedition followed several other, two other expeditions, the first one of which they were on foot and this was one the reasons they began to work with airplanes because on foot in New Guinea in these, as they were going up the Fly River, New Guinea¿s biggest river, they recognized one of the principle problems in New Guinea, which actually people working over there still have and that is that the various tribes and language groups in New Guinea didn¿t not, they did not work well together.
They were at war most of the time.
They were always at war! And this is of course the, formally, the cannibal island group, and I mean there cannibalism, at least ceremonial cannibalism, was still underway, even at this time. So they had a lot of trouble organizing a party of people that could move all the way up the Fly River and get up into the highlands because they were constantly encountering new tribal groups and it was an unpredictable process, let alone, of course, physically demanding. So they recognized the need and of course by the 1930s knew about the possibility of doing this by plane and that they set about doing for the second expedition in the mid 1930s and succeeded in getting in there to the upper reaches of the Fly River with a big single engine amphibious plane only to establish their camp, get people going up there, and then have the plane sink in the middle of a storm out in Port Moresby. So here with people up on the, halfway up the mountain slope, Archbold down at the base camp watching his plane sink, he was in radio contact with his folks up there, they had to figure out what to do and how to arrange for the safe extraction of his camp from up there where they¿d arrived by plane. So the stories of the trip back downstream as Archbold was heading back upstream on the Fly River to meet them and greet them and get them out of there are hair-raising indeed and of course all the while these guys are all collecting plants and mammals and birds and making major discoveries along the way, so it¿s the, it¿s pretty remarkable that they, after that second expedition continued to want to work in this thing and they were actually just even the, all the more excited about getting back tot he US, getting a new plane, which they had custom-built by Consolidated Aviation, and going back for the great third expedition, which was by far their most productive and probably the most famous one.
Tell me, for scientists looking at New Guinea back in the 30s, what did, how would a scientist have assessed going on an expedition to New Guinea, how did it seem to them?
Well, the 1930s was, could be viewed as the tail end of a 200 year long period of human discovery of course around the planet, scientific discovery around the planet and this still was an era in which people knew darn well that there were vast parts of the world that were essentially unexplored. The opportunity was still being grabbed by young scientists, for example, Austin Rand, whom Archbold picked to be his ornithologist, jumped at the chance to go to Madagascar, changed his Ph.D. thesis instantly and went to Madagascar and that friendship carried on to New Guinea, so here was a chance to get into some of the most remote places, no doubt to discover totally unknown species of plants and animals, and continued to contribute to the overall understanding about how life on the Earth evolved in all of its different kinds. So it was, again, I think the best context to imagine in the 1930s, at least as I do it, is this was the last great era in which big, multidisciplinary expeditions to just simply see what the world looked like were being mounted. Well, of course, the last places to go were at the tops of these of totally inaccessible mountains, and that¿s part of the reason why this part of New Guinea was among the last ones to be discovered.
So when Archbold was going out there, was it, was he sparked by, I mean, could you tell in the 70s when you were hearing his stories that he was excited about kind of the act of discovery? Was he guy who loved adventure or what was it?
Without any question, this was a man who absolutely cherished adventure. I don¿t, I honestly don¿t think that he made these trips specifically because of the adventure, but here was a man who enjoyed it while it was happening. And he was totally unflappable during the process and this was one of the things that people even like Lowell Thomas as he was announcing these new accomplishments of Archbold in the 1940s remarked on. Here was a man that everybody recognized, they wanted to have at their front of their expedition because he knew how to handle any situation, he was totally unflappable, and I can tell you as a college student sitting there in his living room floor listening to him talk about this in the 1970s, as he described these places, his eyes would get big and deep and excited, his eyebrows would go up, and he simply reveled in the memory of these exciting times. He carried that kind of a thing even on into the 40s, 50s, and 60s with much smaller scale things in the US and particularly in, you know, in the place that he established, the biological station out in the rural parts of central Florida in the sandy trails where he would drive his Cadillac out there and get it stuck in the middle of the sand or where he¿d get on the fire truck and take a bunch of people out to put out a fire and here was a man who just absolutely got physically and spiritually alive when an adventure was in front of him. Clearly, this was a big part of his, of the motivation that took him back up there for that, especially that incredible third expedition.
Later in his life, when you knew him at the research station and he¿s, how did he seem physically?
Well, Archbold was a very interesting man from a health standpoint. He had narcolepsy, very serious narcolepsy at least later in his life, during the last decades of his life and so, physically, when we spoke with him, we would often endure occasional lapses of sleep where he would literally in midsentence nod off and we¿d gently wake him up and he would be able to take right off and talk again with, in midsentence. But physically the man, up until the last moments of his life, was big, a strong man, loved to play wrestle with good friends of his at the station and physically still very, very competent. He also loved tinkering with things, so he had a lot of electronic gadgetry that he homebuilt in his offices there at Archbold Biological Station. And so, this major affliction of his, of course, limited what he could do, limited the amount to independent travel that he could make later his life, but other than that one very odd feature of his persona, he was a still a man that you really enjoyed listening to.
He must have been phenomenally wealthy. Did he manifest that in his, in his daily life?
Well, you know, he was not phenomenally wealthy. He did inherit, as one of the three grandchildren of John D. Rock-, John D. Archbold, the Standard Oil president that succeeded Rockefeller at the turn of the century, he was a grandchild of that Standard Oil money and had some millions of dollars, but it wasn¿t staggering amounts of money by today¿s standards certainly, and by no means did he flaunt that. In fact, we all used to comment as kids moving through there that here was a guy who lived in a very, very humble bedroom overlooking the biological preserve who ate well but did not do anything that flaunted wealth, and in fact, this is one of the great, wonderful things about Mr. Archbold altogether, that everybody who knew him continues to remark on. That is, here¿s a man with some wealth who used his wealth all his life for the purpose of benefitting scientists and humans for exploring the world and for helping the culture around him. He brought electricity into the rural communities of central Florida in the 1940s, did a lot for the community, was active with the Chamber of Commerce and the Rotary Club and so he was a community man despite being very shy and retiring, a mysterious fellow to the community, but nonetheless very generous. All the adjectives that people ever use about Mr. Archbold from the early days of the Madagascar expedition to his final days in the 1970s was ¿generous.¿ He loved to help people who wanted to be curious with nature and got a big charge, as big a charge as he got out of adventure, he got out of helping scientists do their thing. For many, many years, he would charge a buck to stay at the place and have three great meals a day cooked a day for them while the scientists went about, did their exploring. So this is the way he used his wealth, and I will add that in the 1970s he used some of his assets to purchase a large piece of property which became a major addition to the Archbold station, a place that¿s now 5000 acres of some of the most spectacular wilderness area left in central Florida.
Do you think he ever felt, did he have any self-doubt or conflicts about his lack of formal degree, although he was a staff scientist on the museum of, American Museum of Natural History, but I wonder if he ever, you know, here he is with guys who did get their doctorates and go through all the formal training and all that stuff and he sponsored all these people at the biological station, was he ever, did he have any feeling about that, do you know?
He had, he used to talk in amusing ways to us about the disagreements he had with some of scientists that were involved. I particularly remember talking about the discussions of lemur taxonomy. He¿s actually published a few papers co-authored with other scientists, more trained scientists on the taxonomy, the species limits of Madagascar¿s lemurs and he occasionally railed against some of the choices of research topics by the people in the American Museum who were going off and continuing the Archbold expeditions during the 50s, 1940s and 50s, so there was a certain amount of, kind of jealous rivalry with some of these high-falutin¿ trained scientists, but that was a minor feature of his conversations. He enjoyed talking about it from time to time, but I never got a sense that he was genuinely jealous of these. I instead got a sense that he felt enormously proud to have helped them do their thing.
It, was it unusual to have someone, I mean, when he was the head of these expeditions, he was the actual expedition leader, was it unusual to have someone like him be the expedition leader? I mean, wouldn¿t it normally be the guy with the most papers or the most advanced degree or the head of the department or something?
That could by true. By that time, that was certainly true in some parts of the world, but remember, we¿re talking about expeditions that were heading into some of the toughest places to get to by any, anywhere in the world, so I think the opportunity to sit side by side or in the same plane with somebody who had the daring as well as the means to get an amphibious plane up into these places. I think that, everything else paled by comparision to that. There isn¿t a scientist I know of then and certainly no scientist I know now who would have had the guts to do that. So here we¿re talking about people living side by side with somebody who by virtue of being with him, they all could get a little braver and stronger and get up into some of these remote places.
Was he a, physically speaking, I mean, I¿m always interested in, courage comes in all kind of sizes, but did you, were there stories that you knew about things that he had done that you said, ¿God, you know, would loved to have seen that, but I¿m glad I wasn¿t called on to do it¿?
Well, I would certainly say that about some of these raft expeditions on the Fly River, New Guinea. He was a physically large man, 6¿2¿ or 6¿3¿ at least and a very robust body build, so he was a good sized guy. Had very, very penetrating eyes as was very handsome, very dashing looking fellow, so physically strong, and therefore capable, again, in the context of coming into remote places where nobody had seen white people before, much less exploring scientists. He was a man who cut a pretty impressive figure and they always encountered basically friendly people out there in the wilds of New Guinea and no doubt at least one of the reasons for that is here¿s a pretty huge guy and Austin Rand himself actually towering over Archbold, so a couple of pretty darn big people there. I think the most, no doubt he did do with his strength a lot of physically remarkable things, to me, everything pales in comparison to the, the mental fortitude that it took to get up there into the sky and land planes at elevations higher than they¿d ever been, to fly that seaplane the longest possible distance around the globe for the first time, and basically, he was another Charles Lindbergh, and he was a successful Amelia Earhart. Lowell Thomas absolutely was staggered by the feat of flying across the Indian Ocean, for example, the first time anybody had done that. So here are these great world aviation records that were being set by this man that would, as Lowell Thomas put it, if you asked him to tell about it, it would be sort or like he¿s reading out of the telephone book.
Tell me, what did Archbold regard as his greatest achievement?
Archbold himself, again, this is, based on the conversations that I¿ve had with him, again as me being a college student, Archbold in his 60s, I always had the impression that he viewed his heyday as being the third New Guinea expedition, the last expedition in the 1930s to New Guinea in which they did some very daring things, they had to make some decisions that nobody¿d ever made before, where they literally discovered the Grand Valley of New Guinea in which 60,000 people previously uncontacted by the rest of humanity were living. This was his greatest time, so he did talk about that a lot. He also, I should mention he was a very accomplished mountaineer. He explored, I think, all of the high peaks in Europe, won a bunch of awards for his mountaineering prowess, so when you ask about physical accomplishments, here was a man who¿d clearly been there in terms of elevation and physical exertion in the mountains of Europe and no doubt this actually helped him with the notion that, ¿Well, down here in the tropics, we¿re only going up to, what, 10,000, 11,000 feet, no problem.¿
Did he think that finding the people in this valley, that that was the signal thing for him, because, I mean, you do think in terms of lost civilizations and, I mean, this is something that is never going to happen again on Earth. I mean, he found the last group of people on Earth that were unknown.
Right, and in addition to just the sheer discovery there, he discovered ethnologically some interesting things. Here was a huge group of people who in a land of hunter-gatherer tribes had become agricultural and were essentially unarmed and very friendly and who actually scorned the idea that they¿d be given steel axes. They preferred to do their work with their stone axes and wooden sticks. So he definitely appreciated the fact that he had found something remarkable there. To me, at least, he never seemed like he was lording this over as something that, you know, wow, look at what I did. It was always a bit with an understated description. He was more just, stated with a wonder of the people themselves as opposed to any sort of enormous pride in what he had actually accomplished. Again, this is one of the reasons why the man has barely been heard of this century. He was not one to come back and with great fanfare produce these enormous findings and get great publicity. He actually scorned publicity altogether.
Could you sum up for me, John, the significance of the biological station?
Sure. Archbold Biological Station is one of the most remarkable remaining natural areas left in Florida. It¿s one of the two or three largest and best equipped ecological research stations in the United States. Many people have heard of places like Scripps Institute and Woods Hole and Archbold Biological Station is one of these places for a land-based ecological system. So it¿s a very well-established ecological facility. It has its own staff, a beautiful laboratory building, and most important of all, it protects 5000 acres on its own property of some very, very rare habitat that is essentially gone throughout the state of Florida. That is this very peculiar stunted or elfin oak forest called the Florida scrub which has hundreds of species of plants and animals that are limited to it, so at that place are some of the only spot where you can go to study a whole intact ecosystem that is completely undisturbed. And to have that capacity along with a very well-equipped and well-funded ecological research station right on top of it with a very good dedicated staff where scientists can come and visit from around the world and spend long times at their project and know that 10 years or 20 years or 100 years from now, their work can continue because of the protection of this place, that is the singular achievement of the Archbold Biological Station.
END OF INTERVIEW