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Patuxent Wildlife Research Center


Waldo Lee McAtee

Born in 1883, Waldo Lee McAtee's lifelong fascination with birds and the natural world began on childhood walks with his grandfather along the Mississinewa River in Marion, Indiana. After attending a lecture by American Museum of Natural History curator (and BPP observer) Frank M. Chapman at sixteen, McAtee increasingly focused on ornithology, and he enrolled at Indiana University to study biology two years later. He underwrote his education by serving as Curator of Birds for the university museum, and was hired as a temporary employee of the US Bureau of Biological Survey while still a student. McAtee joined the Bureau full time after graduating in 1904, and moved to Washington, DC with his family, where he would live and work for the next forty-three years. His 1906 master's thesis, "The Horned Larks and Their Relation to Agriculture" foreshadowed a career spent studying the food sources and economic significance of birds and other vertebrates.

McAtee spent his entire working life as a federal employee, culminating in his appointment as technical advisor to the Chief of the Biological Survey. He also helped to found the Bureau's Division of Food Habits Research, served as its first director, and was acting custodian of hemiptera at the US National Museum from 1920-1942. At the end of his career, from 1940-1947, he was the senior editor of technical publications for Biological Survey's successor, the US Fish and Wildlife Service. He was an officer of the American Ornithological Union for almost twenty years, and was widely active in professional organizations.

McAtee was a tireless, almost obsessive, researcher and writer, and published more than 750 articles related to birds, insects, and vertebrate food sources during his career. He was the founding editor and an important contributor to Wildlife Review and the Journal of Wildlife Management, and wrote regularly for The Auk and other natural history periodicals. Independently, and with colleagues, McAtee was responsible for describing more than 450 species and twenty genera of insects. He also published widely on other topics (writing more than fifty articles on Indiana folklore and dialect, for example), privately printed many pamphlets of short fiction, poetry, and informal musings on professional topics, and left behind several sizable unpublished manuscripts (including a compilation of more than 67,000 vernacular names used by laymen and scientists to refer to birds) as well as correspondence with many of the important biologists of his era. His many papers are now held by the Library of Congress, Cornell, Indiana University, UCLA, and other institutions.

McAtee retired in 1947 and moved with his wife Fannie to Chapel Hill, NC. He died there, of cancer, on January 7, 1962.

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