A businessman and orthnithologist, Arthur Cleveland Bent was born in Taunton, Massachusetts, on November 25, 1866, and educated at Harvard (AB, 1889). Enjoying success in business despite the tumultuous economic times, Bent rose to executive positions with the Mason Machine Works and Plymouth Light and Electric Co., but from his undergraduate days on, he maintained an abiding interest in birds. Although an amateur, he was well respected by academic scientists, becoming an associate in Ornithology at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University, a collaborator at the Smithsonian Institute, and an officer of the American Ornithologists' Union. His major work was the multivolume Life Histories of North American Birds.
The Bent collection contains a dense series of ornithological field notes kept by Owen Durfee (1880-1909) and Bent (1887-1942), along with photographs and miscellaneous materials relating to Bent's oological and ornithological work. The collection includes lists of nest observations, egg measurements, bird sightings, as well as records pertaining to negatives and specimens provided to organizations such as the Massachusetts Audubon Society, the Bristol County Agricultural School, and the United States National Museum.
The collection is open for research.
Background on Arthur Cleveland Bent
A life-long resident of Taunton, Massachusetts, Arthur Cleveland Bent (1866-1954) was only six when his mother died and when a concerned father began to bring his "sickly son" on nature walks to improve his health. Bent's passion for birds began with these walks. Educated formally in local public schools and at the Bristol Academy, Bent entered Harvard College, graduating with honors in the class of 1889. His sickly youth and Victorian ideals of manhood instilled in Bent a deep interest in physical fitness, which was reflected in a broken nose received in a boxing match and a habit of working with an axe and weights until he was 80 years old. His habits served him well as an oologist, as he made precarious climbs to collect eggs until he was nearly 75.
Putting his Harvard degree to work, Bent entered business after graduation, beginning with work in banking before moving on through positions in the cotton industry and as an executive in the utilities business. The apex of his business career came in 1892 when he and John Scott purchased the Plymouth Electric Light Company from General Electric, and although the firm nearly went bankrupt in the panic of 1893, Bent held on and returned the company to profitability, serving as president and treasurer from 1900 to 1931. Well and widely respected, he sat upon a number of boards of directors and was active in a variety of civic and religious organizations.
It was his avocational interest in ornithology, however, that came to define his life. Having been fascinated with birds from his undergraduate years at Harvard, Bent's ambition drew him into close correspondence with the emerging class of professional academic ornithologists as early as 1885, when he became a natural history correspondent for Spencer Baird of the Smithsonian Institution. An avid collector and true Victorian scientist, Bent was a scientist with a gun and wide sights. His personal collection of bird specimens eventually rose to almost 3,500 skins, most of which are now housed at Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology, and he was even more industrious as an oologist, collecting over 30,000 eggs which form a significant part of the collections of the United States National Museum. An active member of the National Audubon Society, the Bristol County Academy of Sciences (President, 1915), and the Nuttall, Wilson, and Cooper ornithological clubs, Bent was particularly closely involved with the American Ornithologist's Union (AOU), in which he was named a Fellow (1902) and served as editor of the Union's journal, The Auk, vice president (1929-1934), and finally president (1935-1937).
From 1900 on, and particularly after his retirement from day to day work in his firm, Bent took annual birding excursions to far flung sites from Florida to the southwestern U.S., California to the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia, and Labrador. The culmination of his ornithological work came when Bent approached Baird with the offer to assume control of the influential Smithsonian series, Life Histories of North American Birds, after its founder, Charles Bendire, died in 1897. Beginning what he called his "life's work" in 1910, Bent published eighteen volumes on birds between 1919 and 1953, approaching them systematically from blackbirds to raptors. Although he passed away in 1954, a nineteenth volume appeared posthumously under Bent's name, with two more volumes added later by Warren Taber, using the notes, photographs, and outlines left in Bent's collection.
The Bent collection contains the field journals, photographs, and some correspondence of the ornithologist Arthur Cleveland Bent, along with several journals of his childhood friend, Owen Durfee. Spanning the years 1887-1943, these journals offer a valuable index to the evolution of ornithological practice from the work of a Victorian "ornithologist with a shot gun" to the professionalized field notes of a 20th century scientist. Filled with information on the natural history of North American birds, the jorunals include data on behavior, nesting, plumage, song, and habitat culled from observations in New England, Florida, Texas, California, Alaska, and Labrador, among other places.
Rich in descriptions of Bent's experiences in the field, the journals hints at the impact of new technologies in shotguns, cameras, cars, and optical equipment, but also the culture of birding in the field. Bent's journal for 1924, for example, gives a spectacular description of life on the U.S. Virgin Islands complete with photographic images. Bent often returned to his journals to make corrections or clarifications, usually noted in red, and underlining species of birds that he intended to include in his work on the Life Histories.
The Bent collection also contains some valuable longitudinal studies, including two datasets concerning New England raptors. Bent collected osprey data at a nesting site in Rhode Island annually, recording nesting pairs, new nests, abandoned nests, and numbers of eggs for each pair, and he conducted a similar survey of red tailed hawks between 1924 and 1943. One journal contains an inventory of part of Bent's massive egg collection, noting the number of eggs, oological notations, AOU Species number, the location of the collection and collector (Bent had a number of colleagues who helped him gather specimens). Finally, the collection includes an interesting view on early bird protection in the form of an official Wood Duck census report prepared for the Massachusetts Commission on Ornithology. Descriptions of egg and skin specimen preservation can be found sporadically throughout the collection.
The field notes in Bent's later journals are limited compared to the earlier, but in some cases they were used as first drafts for his Life Histories for North American Birds. Many are illustrated with photographs of Bent and his associates in the field, general shots of the scenery, as well as images of birds and their nests.
The collection is organized into six series: Durfee's Field Notebooks, Bent's Journals, Photographs, Lists, Mimeographed and Printed Materials, and Handwritten index cards for books in Bent's collection. The field notebooks and journals are arranged chronologically, the photographs by plate number when applicable, and the lists are alphabetical by topic.
The papers of Arthur Cleveland Bent (1866-1954), which were given to the University in 1959 by Mrs. Bent with a collection of Mr. Bent's books, remained in the possession of Professor Lawrence Bartlett of the Zoology Department until they were received in the Archives in 1983 after Professor Bartlett's death. Books have been cataloged and incorporated into the Du Bois Library's circulating collection.
Processed by Linda Seidman, 2003, and Stephen Manuel, 2010.
A card catalogue for Bent's book collection is available on level 25.
Encoding funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
Cite as: Arthur Cleveland Bent Ornithological Papers (MS 413). Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries.