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Matthew Stirling and Tres Zapotes Monument G. Tres Zapotes, 1939. stirling_19. Photograph by Richard H. Stewart, National Anthropological Archives

Alexander Wetmore
1886 - 1978

Portrait of Wetmore
wetmore_570. A. Wetmore Collection, Smithsonian Institution Archives

Alexander Wetmore was born on June 18, 1886, in North Freedom, Wisconsin. He was interested in birds from a young age, and received a B.S. in 1912 from the University of Kansas. In 1916 he received an M.S. from George Washington University and a Ph.D. in 1920.

As a young biologist with the U.S. Bureau of Biological Survey, Wetmore conducted extensive fieldwork in Latin America. In 1911 he studied bird life in Puerto Rico, and later traveled for two years throughout South America investigating bird migration between the Americas.

Wetmore became assistant secretary of the U.S. National Museum in 1925, where he served for twenty years. Despite the fact that fieldwork opportunities were limited during the Great Depression and World War II, Wetmore managed to conduct short trips to Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Guatemala, Costa Rica and Colombia.

In 1939 Wetmore joined Matthew Stirling at Tres Zapotes, Veracruz, to study the bird life of that region. Following the 1939 season, other Smithsonian ornithologists continued the fieldwork that Wetmore had started: Melbourne Armstrong Carriker in 1940 and Walter Weber in 1943. As both assistant secretary of the Smithsonian and personal friend, Wetmore maintained an extensive correspondence with Matthew and Marion Stirling during their archaeological expeditions to Mexico and elsewhere.

Wetmore served as the Smithsonian's sixth secretary from 1945 to 1952 and at the same time began a research program that would occupy his energies for the remainder of his life. He traveled to Panama every year between 1946 and 1966 to make an exhaustive survey of the birds of the isthmus. This work culminated in the publication of his magnum opus, The Birds of the Republic of Panama – the last of which was published posthumously in 1984. Alexander Wetmore died in Maryland in 1978.

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