Sea Lion Devastation
Notable People & Events
History of the Museum
Clinton Gilbert Abbott, Director of the San Diego Natural History
Museum from 1922 until his death in 1946, saw the Museum through times
of great hardship as well as growth. From the rapid ascent of the San
Diego Society of Natural History during the 1920s, to the doldrums
of the Depression during the 1930s, Abbott supervised the construction
of the Museum’s current building, arranged numerous field trips for
his research staff, and was involved in a number of conservancy issues.
The 1940s would see a different challenge arise as the war effort dictated
the building be converted into a naval hospital. Regardless of these
hardships, Abbott stayed the course, leading the Museum into a new
era of prosperity during the 1950s.
Abbott was born in Liverpool, England, on April 17th,
1881 to American parents. His early years were marked by a constant
shuttling between England and North America, with significant amounts
of his schooling taking place in both areas. Graduating from Columbia
University in 1903, and pursuing graduate studies for a short time
at Cornell University in 1915, Abbott developed a strong background
in natural history and ornithology. By the time of the publication
of The Home Life of the Osprey in 1911, Abbott had become a
nationally known naturalist.
While serving on the New York State conservation commission and taking
an active role in the nationally renowned Cooper Ornithological Society,
Abbott was contacted by the San Diego Society of Natural History
to offer him a job as an educational assistant to then director Howard
Cleaves. Cleaves left his post soon after, though, due to philosophical
differences with the Museum’s leadership and Abbott vaulted into
Already known for his conservation work in New York, Abbott placed
the Museum on a similar path. Expressing his concerns about the role
of conservancy in Mexico, he stressed the need for continued research
expeditions into the country hoping for “incalculable accomplishments” in
furthering the study of the natural history of the area.
Throughout the 1920s, Abbott would continually pressure both Mexican
and Californian authorities to preserve the local flora and fauna. Paying
special attention to the indiscriminate killing of birds and the few
mountain lions left in the San Diego area, Abbott soon put the Museum
in the forefront of conservation issues in the region.
In 1928, Abbott took a brief leave of absence to travel along the East
Coast and Europe, leaving a beautifully detailed account of his birding
experiences in Scotland. When he got home, though, the leisure of
his travels was replaced by the hectic pace of the early 1930s. Named
the acting director of the San Diego Museum in 1929, (now known as
the Museum of Man) Abbott
still had to perform his duties at the Natural History Museum. Funds
became scarce as local governments tightened their belts, and the
San Diego Natural History Museum’s principle donor, Ellen Browning
Scripps, passed away. A major highlight of this period was the construction
of the Museum’s current building, whose funding Abbott had worked
endlessly to procure.
As the 1930s progressed, funding problems were alleviated by an increasing
number of WPA (Works Project Administration) workers roaming the halls
at the Museum, courtesy of the federal government’s New Deal plan.
In the middle of the decade, though, Abbott was waylaid by poor health.
Spending long nights dictating letters to his longtime secretary, Lillian
Buss, during his six month hospital stay, Abbott maintained his connection
to the Museum. The close of the decade would bring him a brief respite
from ill health, and also his last major involvement in the conservation
issue of sea lion slaughter. Yet, by 1940 Laurence
Huey had to step briefly into Abbott’s position during another
When Abbott returned, his health improved, the onset of World War II
brought new difficulties. The United States Navy took control of the
Museum building in 1943 for use as a hospital, and the museum staff had
to remove most of the building’s contents to make room for medical equipment.
Though the government promised to repay the Society for any damage done
to their goods, Abbott still found himself in a tough position. Many
of the Museum’s exhibits were badly damaged in the move, while a reimbursement
at the war’s end was slow to come.
Abbott, unfortunately, was unable to see the reconstruction of the
Museum. Still squabbling with the federal government over funding,
Abbott passed away on March 6, 1946. Lillian Buss retired soon afterwards,
with Laurence Huey again replacing Abbott on an interim basis. The
following year, Colonel Arthur Fischer became the new permanent director
of the Museum, a position he held from 1947 until 1955.
Far Reaching Legacy
Abbott’s legacy at the San Diego Natural History Museum is far reaching.
A bust made of him shortly after his death, financed by numerous donations
from people whose lives he affected, is still on display at the museum.
In the 1980s, the exhibit “Anza Borrego: a Desert Legacy” was done
in his honor, featuring photos taken by his grandson, Bill Evarts.
Most importantly, the Museum has continued to play a major role in biodiversity
conservation issues in Southern California and Baja California,
following in Abbott’s footsteps.