Posted by: Loren Coleman on February 28th, 2008
American ornithologist Melvin Alvah Traylor Jr., 92, has died. He was among the members of the 1960 World Book Encyclopedia Scientific Expedition to the Himalaya led by Sir Edmund Hillary.
Melvin Traylor (December 16, 1915 – February 11, 2008) was the son of famed Chicago banker Melvin Alvah Traylor and Mrs. Dorothy Y. Traylor. Traylor was a Lieutenant with the US Marines and served on Guadalcanal during World War II in 1942 where he was awarded with the Silver Star medal. As a Marine Corp officer, Traylor was severely injured during the Battle of Tarawa in the Pacific theatre, where he lost one eye and suffered arm and upper body wounds during the famous beach assault.
After the war Traylor continued his work for the Field Museum of Chicago, which he had started in 1937. He made expeditions to Africa (in collaboration with Austin L. Rand), to South America, and to Asia. He was a member of the Abominable Snowman effort in 1960. In 1956 Traylor became assistant curator of birds in the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. Since his retirement in the 1980s he was working as curator emeritus for the Field Museum.
Traylor was among the authors (alongside Raymond A. Paynter, Ernst Mayr and G. William Cottrell) of Checklist of Birds of the World, a standard reference work with sixteen volumes published between 1934 and 1987. Traylor described species like the Tana River Cisticola, the Colombian Screech-owl, and the tyrant flycatchers in the genus Zimmerius. He made further definitive revisions of the family Tyrannidae. The Orange-eyed Flycatcher (Tolmomyias traylori) is named in his honour. Traylor and Paynter were awarded with the Elliott Coues Award of the American Ornithologists’ Union in 2001.
Traylor wrote various notes of his time in the Himalaya, including in 1964: Further Notes on Nepal Birds : [Chicago] Chicago Natural History Museum.
In that work, Traylor penned these observations:
The present report, like that previously published (Fleming and Traylor, 1961), contains taxonomic and other notes on birds collected by Dr. Fleming in Nepal, in this instance, in 1960 and 1961. The bulk of the specimens were taken when Dr. Fleming was working in cooperation with the World Book Scientific Expedition to the Himalayas.
* * *
Early in 1960, while I was in the United States, Dr. Clifford C. Gregg, then Director of Chicago Natural History Museum, asked me, as a member of the Museum staff living in Kathmandu, if I
would represent the Museum on a forthcoming expedition to the Himalayas. The expedition was being planned by the World Book Encyclopedia and would be under the direction of Sir Edmund Hillary. My particular job would be to collect birds and small mammals for the Museum. Since my vacation was due and I would be returning to Kathmandu from the United States in less than a month, I accepted.
Two weeks later I was jetting to the Orient. Plans for the World Book Encyclopedia Scientific Expedition to the Himalayas had taken definite shape. The major effort would be a study by a group of medical men on the effect of altitude on the human body and the scaling, without oxygen, of Makalu, the world’s fourth highest mountain. A second purpose of the expedition would be to prove or disprove the existence of the “yeti”. The third part of the expedition would be my work for Chicago Natural History Museum. Chief Curator Austin L. Rand outlined a rough program for me: to enlist the assistance of several Nepalese helpers for my collecting, and to choose my own time and area of operation independently of Sir Edmund Hillary’s group.
See also the Chicago Tribune’s obituary. In “Noted ornithologist Melvin A. Traylor Jr. dies at 92,” it was noted:
Part of a bygone era of “gentleman scientists,” [Traylor] continued to do volunteer work for the Field until joining the museum’s staff in 1956, when he became an assistant curator.
His specialty was flycatchers, a bird family of seemingly infinite variety. His expeditions took him to Angola, Sudan and what is now Zimbabwe, as well as throughout Latin America. Hundreds of birds he collected on these trips remain laid out in drawers at the Field Museum for inspection by future scientists.
He documented differences among birds, often based on geographic distribution, and was the first to classify dozens of the winged creatures. He had six birds and two bird lice named after him.
He also compiled, with Raymond Paynter of Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, a series of gazetteers that detail where ornithological research has been done in South America.
“They basically provide blueprints to where people have and haven’t been,” said John Bates, chairman of the zoology department at the Field Museum.
“His contributions were ornithological collections from around the world and scientific journals describing these collections,” Bates said. “These collections form the basis of efforts to understand and preserve these birds.”