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Naturalist, Explorer, Educator

Joseph Beale Steere
The Michigan Alumnus 24

 1868, LL.B 1870, PH.D 1875 HON,


by Frederick M. Gaige, '14, Director, Museum of Zoology

Today's young scientists may have been inspired by 
such notables as Margaret Mead, the Leakeys, or Dian 
Fossey. But in the nineteenth-century, it was Charles 
Darwin, whose 1831-1836 voyage on the HMS Beagle,
 and subsequent publications and theories, inspired a rash
 of interest in the natural sciences. One young man,
 Joseph Beale Steere, '68, LL.B. 70, Ph.D.'75Hon, followed Darwin's example when he set sail in September
1870 on a five-year exploration around the world. Before 
he returned home, he would discover many previously
 unknown species, endure the ravages of malaria, as well
 as encounter both friendly and unfriendly natives.

The following excerpt, detailing some of Steere's trav
els, which began in Brazil, appeared in the 20 February
1932 Michigan Alumnus in honor of his 90th birth

Tall masts were still competing with funnels for
 ocean traffic on the twentieth of September
 1870, when Professor Steere and a companion went
 down to the ship that was to start them on a five-
year expedition to some unknown lands. New York
 harbor showed both sails and smoke in profusion, 
but no steamer went to Para [Belem], and the two
 men boarded a little Gloucester fishing schooner 
engaged in the rubber trade to the Amazon. Low in 
the water, tiny against the pier, she lay, and before 
sailing time the companion had said, "Joe, I'm not
 good enough for this. I'm going home."

Maranhao was reached on the evening of October
 20; forty days out from New York... Professor
 Steere began to apply his knowledge of Portuguese 
and Spanish—it would be five years before his
 mother tongue would be of much service to him—
and start his collections, zoological, anthropological,
 botanical. After a month about Maranhao he pro
ceeded to Para and from there, until early June, he
 carried on extensive explorations on the mouths of 
the Amazon, especially on the great island Marajo,
 where he excavated some of the huge burial
 mounds of prehistoric man and made other im
portant finds.

During the stay in Para, Professor Steere had 
made the acquaintance of another young man who 
had arrived from the States, and the two had 
planned to continue the expedition together. But
 again, Dr. Steere was to go on alone. Yellow fever,
 the then terrible, uncontrolled scourge of the tropics, 
broke out in Para. The two men had separated. Pro
fessor Steere to go up the Amazon to Santarem—a 
region made famous by the English naturalists Wal
lace and Bates—the other man to make a few further excavations on Marajo. Weeks later word ar
rived at Santarem of the companion's death in Para
 from the fever. For the rest of the journey, Joseph
 Steere was entirely alone.

Then followed months of travel by boats on the
 Amazon and some of its tributaries, to Manaos, up 
the Rio Purus to Ituchy and Marranhan, back to
 Manaos and up the main river to Pebas, Peru, where 
he arrived on Christmas Day, 1871. He continued on
 to Barrancas and Pongo Manseriche at the very foot
 of the Andes, then turned back to the mouth of the 
Huallaya and ascended to Yurimaguas, which he
 reached in March 1872. Here travel by boat ended.

He had encountered little known tribes here and 
there, collected their weapons, implements and
 manufactures, observed their manner of living. He 
had seen an endless number of strange animals of 
many sorts, collected them liberally and had proved 
himself able to take his place as an explorer.

Steere, now travelling by foot and horseback, crossed 
the Andes, reaching Truxilla on the Peruvian coast. He 
had crossed the South American continent from the At
lantic to the Pacific Oceans. He then went south to Peru, 
again crisscrossing the Andes before ending up near 
Lima, at Calloa, where in May of 1873, two and a half
 years after he had arrived, he took a ship for China and the

Across South America he had collected, with
 thousands of other items, nearly a thousand bird
 skins of 362 species, of which 22 species were new 
to science.

Dr. Steere arrived at Takow, Formosa [Taiwan],
 early in October 1873. Five months were spent in 
that almost unknown island, long trips were made
 into the interior, weeks were spent living with tribes
 of headhunters, where a single man—a very profi
cient one no doubt—had twenty-four human skulls
 displayed as his trophies of the chase...Dangers
 from hostile and suspicious tribes lurked in the 
forests and at least once, flights of spears and ar
rows nearly ended the expedition, but the work was 
brought to a splendid conclusion.

About six months later, in March of 1874, Steere sailed
 for the Philippines.

Here, on 10 June 1874, he began the work that
 was to make him one of the outstanding scientists
 of his day, and which has linked his name with the
 natural history of the Philippine Islands forever. He
 first crossed Luzon Island by way of Mauban and
 Lucban to the Pacific, ascending Mt. Majaijai, 
spending some time on its flanks enroute. In July, 
he took a little steamer to the colony of Puerto
 Princesa on the island of Palawan and after a month
 of hard work there, where no naturalist had ever 
been before, crossed to Balabac Island, where he 
nearly died of pernicious malaria. He was able to
 cross to Mindanao at last where he had to spend
 some six weeks recuperating at Zamboanga. The is
land of Basilan was next visited, again virgin
 ground to a naturalist, and proved of high interest
 with many new and peculiar species to be taken.
 After this work, he returned to Zamboanga and
 vicinity, where he again had extraordinary success 
in his collections of birds and mammals. This was 
early in December 1874. The work here and on Basi
lan was done under most precarious conditions, as 
the Moros were continually at war with the Span
ish garrisons and engagements were common.

The Philippine work was drawing to a close. Dr.
 Steere had visited islands where no scientist had
 ever worked; he was observing and recording the
 extraordinary life of the archipelago and its distribution on the islands.

Steere went on to Macassar, Celebes (Indonesia) where he spent some time collecting more specimens, on the various islands before sailing on to Java. Returning to Sin
gapore, he took a ship in August 1875, finally arriving
 in Ann Arbor on October 21.

The expedition had been a tremendous success...
Zoological specimens included birds, mammals, 
reptiles, fishes, shells, corals, and insects. His botan
ical specimens showed plants, woods, flowers, and
 fruits. Anthropological material embraced a great
 number of specimens of pottery, weapons, imple
ments, ceremonial pieces, clothing, and so on. A 
truly rich collection in new and little known items 
of all kinds. He had gathered a great store of 
first hand observations and new data on these items
 and much more. Everywhere he had made 
friends—friends for science, for his native country,
 for his institution, and for himself. To this day, he 
is known and kindly remembered in the Philip
pines; it is no rare occurrence to have newly arrived
 students from the Islands ask first for Professor
 Steere when they arrive in Ann Arbor

To sum up the work, in birds alone he had added
 sixty species to the known Philippine avifauna
 (most of them new to science) had contributed ma
terially to the solutions of the problems of animal
 distribution in one of the most complex regions of 
the world, he had visited and studied fifteen wild 
tribes (to many of which
 he was the first, or one 
of the very first white
 men they had seen) and
 had added largely to the 
fields of archeology and 

In 1875, the University 
of Michigan rewarded
 Steere's scientific work 
and the intrepid spirit that 
had led him thousands of
 miles around the world
 with an honorary doctor of 
philosophy degree—the
 first honorary Ph.D. they 
had bestowed—as well as 
an appointment as profes
sor and curator of the Mu
seum. It was under his cu
ratorship that the University's first museum building 
was erected to house the University's collections. He
 would return to the Amazon again in 1879, and the
 Philippines in 1887. In 1890, Steere made his last expe
dition, a return to the Amazon, in cooperation with the
 Smithsonian Institute. Steere retired to his Ann Arbor
 farm in 1894, where he continued to maintain close ties 
to the University.

In July, he took a little steamer to the colony of Puerto Princes on the island of Palawan and after a month of hard work there, where no naturalist had ever been before, crossed to Balabac Island, where he nearly died of pernicious malaria.