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Clinton G. Abbott (1881-1946)

Clinton Abbott as a young man

Clinton Gilbert Abbott, Director of the San Diego Natural History Museum from 1922 until his death in 1946, saw the Museum through times of great hardship as well as growth. From the rapid ascent of the San Diego Society of Natural History during the 1920s, to the doldrums of the Depression during the 1930s, Abbott supervised the construction of the Museum’s current building, arranged numerous field trips for his research staff, and was involved in a number of conservancy issues. The 1940s would see a different challenge arise as the war effort dictated the building be converted into a naval hospital. Regardless of these hardships, Abbott stayed the course, leading the Museum into a new era of prosperity during the 1950s.

Early Years

Abbott was born in Liverpool, England, on April 17th, 1881 to American parents. His early years were marked by a constant shuttling between England and North America, with significant amounts of his schooling taking place in both areas. Graduating from Columbia University in 1903, and pursuing graduate studies for a short time at Cornell University in 1915, Abbott developed a strong background in natural history and ornithology. By the time of the publication of The Home Life of the Osprey in 1911, Abbott had become a nationally known naturalist.

Conservation Work

California Sea Lions

While serving on the New York State conservation commission and taking an active role in the nationally renowned Cooper Ornithological Society, Abbott was contacted by the San Diego Society of Natural History to offer him a job as an educational assistant to then director Howard Cleaves. Cleaves left his post soon after, though, due to philosophical differences with the Museum’s leadership and Abbott vaulted into his position.

Already known for his conservation work in New York, Abbott placed the Museum on a similar path. Expressing his concerns about the role of conservancy in Mexico, he stressed the need for continued research expeditions into the country hoping for incalculable accomplishments; in furthering the study of the natural history of the area. Throughout the 1920s, Abbott would continually pressure both Mexican and Californian authorities to preserve the local flora and fauna. Paying special attention to the indiscriminate killing of birds and the few mountain lions left in the San Diego area, Abbott soon put the Museum in the forefront of conservation issues in the region.

Museum Changes

Clinton Abbott

In 1928, Abbott took a brief leave of absence to travel along the East Coast and Europe, leaving a beautifully detailed account of his birding experiences in Scotland. When he got home, though, the leisure of his travels was replaced by the hectic pace of the early 1930s. Named the acting director of the San Diego Museum in 1929, (now known as the Museum of Man) Abbott still had to perform his duties at the Natural History Museum. Funds became scarce as local governments tightened their belts, and the San Diego Natural History Museum’s principle donor, Ellen Browning Scripps, passed away. A major highlight of this period was the construction of the Museum’s current building, whose funding Abbott had worked endlessly to procure.

As the 1930s progressed, funding problems were alleviated by an increasing number of WPA (Works Project Administration) workers roaming the halls at the Museum, courtesy of the federal government’s New Deal plan. In the middle of the decade, though, Abbott was waylaid by poor health. Spending long nights dictating letters to his longtime secretary, Lillian Buss, during his six month hospital stay, Abbott maintained his connection to the Museum. The close of the decade would bring him a brief respite from ill health, and also his last major involvement in the conservation issue of sea lion slaughter. Yet, by 1940 Laurence Huey had to step briefly into Abbott’s position during another illness.

When Abbott returned, his health improved, the onset of World War II brought new difficulties. The United States Navy took control of the Museum building in 1943 for use as a hospital, and the museum staff had to remove most of the building’s contents to make room for medical equipment. Though the government promised to repay the Society for any damage done to their goods, Abbott still found himself in a tough position. Many of the Museum’s exhibits were badly damaged in the move, while a reimbursement at the war’s end was slow to come.

Abbott, unfortunately, was unable to see the reconstruction of the Museum. Still squabbling with the federal government over funding, Abbott passed away on March 6, 1946. Lillian Buss retired soon afterwards, with Laurence Huey again replacing Abbott on an interim basis. The following year, Colonel Arthur Fischer became the new permanent director of the Museum, a position he held from 1947 until 1955.

Far Reaching Legacy

Abbott’s legacy at the San Diego Natural History Museum is far reaching. A bust made of him shortly after his death, financed by numerous donations from people whose lives he affected, is still on display at the museum. In the 1980s, the exhibit “Anza Borrego: a Desert Legacy” was done in his honor, featuring photos taken by his grandson, Bill Evarts. Most importantly, the Museum has continued to play a major role in biodiversity conservation issues in Southern California and Baja California, following in Abbott’s footsteps. 

— Seanacchie McCue, 2006. Research Library Archives intern.