Bowdoin Graduate Charles Otis Whitman, Class of 1868

Charles Otis Whitman (1842-1910) was born and grew up in Woodstock, Maine. Like many other prominent ornithologists, his interest in the subject began at an early age. By 17, he had amassed an impressive collection of bird specimens within two massive glass cases; according to his cousin, “they attracted much attention among ornithological students.”

Whitman graduated from Bowdoin in 1868. After teaching for some time, he went on to study and receive his PhD in Germany. Upon returning from Germany, Whitman traveled to Tokyo to teach zoology as well as to instruct those who would eventually go on to teach the subject. According to biographer Charles Davenport, Whitman could be considered the father of Japanese zoology.

After returning to the United States, Whitman became involved in numerous scientific programs throughout the country. He pioneered biology programs at both Clark University and the University of Chicago, was the founding director of Woods Hole Marine Biological Library in Massachusetts, founded and served as president of the American Society of Zoologists, and established the Journal of Morphology.

Whitman’s most significant contribution to ornithology was his work with passenger pigeons before their extinction. He studied the behavior and lineages of the birds. A talented artist, Whitman also produced brilliant sketches of the pigeons. Before their disappearance, Whitman had in captivity the last remaining members of the species. Next year marks the 100th anniversary of the death of the last passenger pigeon, and Susan Wegner, associate professor of art history at Bowdoin, is organizing an exhibit at Bowdoin to both commemorate the loss of the birds as well as to give Whitman what she feels is proper recognition by the college for his achievements.