San Diego Citizen Scientist and Photographer Lee Passmore

A lot of people run the other way when they see a spider. Lee Passmore not only spent many hours seeking out eight-legged creatures to photograph them—he made new scientific discoveries in the process.

Born in Ontario, Canada, Passmore fled the frozen winters of the North in 1908 to open up a commercial photography studio in San Diego. He earned a living documenting the young and growing city in photographs—Old Town, where the city began; the harbor and its tuna industry; the 1915 Panama-California Exposition; and the developing residential neighborhoods. He discovered flume tiles at the Old Mission Dam and photographed them, creating a record of the method used to transport water from the dam to the San Diego mission in the early 1800s.

But when he discovered nature photography, Passmore found his true calling. In the final decades of his career, he shot thousands of images of spiders, insects, reptiles, birds, and more. Their behavior fascinated him, and he wanted to capture everything about them that he could on film. 

Passmore did his best-known work when he set out to uncover the underground lives of California Trapdoor Spiders. To get the shots he wanted of these elusive arachnids, Passmore would carefully dig up a spider’s underground burrow, take it home, cut away one side, then watch and wait. Eventually, his patience paid off. He captured never-before-seen images of a female California Trapdoor Spider digging her burrow, sealing its opening with a hinged “trap door” made from soil and spider silk, hunting her prey, mating, molting, and guarding her eggs from intruders. None of these behaviors had ever been caught on film before. National Geographic published the photos in 1933 along with an article in which Passmore detailed and described his observations. During World War II, soldiers benefitted from Passmore’s research when Army officers studied his photographs of the spider’s nests and used it in designing foxholes.

The Research Library collection at The Nat now houses the original glass-plate negatives of Passmore’s photographs. You can see a selection on display in Extraordinary Ideas from Ordinary People: A History of Citizen Science, and learn about Passmore and other San Diego citizen scientists who made important contributions to science out of sheer love of observing the natural world. 

Passmore cut this Trapdoor Spider's burrow into a cross-section so he could photograph the spider inside.

An image of a trapdoor spider.

Lee Passmore with his camera, probably around 1910.

Posted by Senior Exhibit Developer Erica Kelly on October 31, 2017

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