A Summary of the Past and a Prognosis of the Future of the UW Fish Collection


The development of the Fish Collection at the University of Washington has taken a tortuous path from its ambitious, but arrested, beginnings under Leonard P. Schultz in the late 1920s to its position today as a highly ranked national resource center led by Theodore W. Pietsch.  Schultz labored arduously to develop the Collection with almost no financial support from the School due to the nation’s financial crisis.  The lack of administrative support claimed by Schultz, along with a promise of increased salary from the USNM, were no doubt factors in his leaving the UW.  This lack of support for the Collection was also likely a major factor in Schultz’s transferring a significant portion of the Fish Collection to the care of the USNM. 113

The Collection received minimal support and oversight for the next 40 years.  For much of this period the Collection was nominally supervised by a non-ichthyologist who seemingly had minimal interest in ichthyology or in the Collection.  Arthur D. Welander was not an aggressive individual; in fact, he was described by some as “shy” and likely his personality was a significant factor in the lack of support for the Collection under his care.114   A further element most probably affecting the care of the Collection was the 40-year leadership of the School by William F. Thompson, from 1930 to 1947, and one of his former students, Richard Van Cleve, who was director from 1948-1971.  Neither had any apparent interest in ichthyology or in the Collection, other than as a resource for teaching. 

Two ichthyologists were hired to supervise the Collection during the period 1963-1972, but neither stayed long at the School.  John D. McPhail was at the School from 1963-1966.  He made a gallant effort to reorganize the Collection after its move to the basement of the Fisheries Center.  Donald W. Hagen, Curator from 1967-1972, was mainly an experimentalist, but he apparently increased the Collection accessions (Table 1).  After the departure of these two professors, the Collection again reverted to the nominal care of Welander.

Theodore W. Pietsch was hired as Curator of Fishes in 1978.  Pietsch, from the beginning, was an intense worker with a drive to excel.  He labored mightily refurbishing and expanding the Collection.  Pietsch soon obtained NSF funding to rehabilitate the Collection and, when a new Fisheries Teaching and Research Building was planned in the in the mid-1980s, he obtained another NSF grant to provide first-class storage facilities for the Collection.  A full-time manager, the first ever for the Collection, was hired in 1988.

Pietsch developed a Collection plan focusing on cold-water North Pacific fishes.  He arranged for the addition of new material to the Collection through cooperation with university, state, and federal fisheries agencies.  In the late 1980s, Pietsch negotiated for the transfer to the museum a significant collection of fish eggs and larvae from the AFSC, a process that is still continuing.  He obtained NSF funding to enable this transfer and the Fish Collection was designated a “Regional Center” by that agency for the archival of early life history collections of the Pacific Northwest.

An active program in collection-based systematic ichthyology was established and many manuscripts were published.  Pietsch is a dedicated teacher as his many “teaching awards” certify.  Graduate students became an integral part of the Fish Collection.  Twenty-one graduate degrees have been awarded since 1978 to students majoring in ichthyology or others using the Collection for their thesis research.

In the mid-1990s, Pietsch organized a series of NSF funded (with collateral support from the governments of Japan and Russia) international expeditions to explore the biodiversity of the Kuril Archipelago.  These ventures, continuing over a ten-year period (1994-2003), added numerous specimens of fishes to the Collection from a poorly known and under-collected part of the world.  These explorations, in addition to adding significantly to knowledge of the fauna and flora of a little known region, provided research training for undergraduate and graduate students as well as for biologists of Japan and Russia.

In the late 1990s, Pietsch received a significant endowment to support collection-based systematic research by ichthyology students at the University of Washington.  The endowment has provided graduate students with funds to travel to distant museums to examine “type” material and has helped purchase technical equipment.  This support will continue in the future.

The importance of the Fish Collection will undoubtedly increase in the future.  It will undergo continual growth in numbers of fishes deposited as well as in the diversity of specimens.  Other areas of growth will include the increased addition of tissue samples for DNA analysis and for the secure storage of tissues used for forensic analysis.

Pietsch has accomplished all this over the past 25 years in the face of frequent periods of financial uncertainty.  He has been forced into a constant search for financial support in addition to maintaining a high level of funding for his research program and those of his graduate students.  This lack of financial support has been a dominant feature of the collection through its history.

According to Ruthven (1931), “The most obvious function of a museum is the diffusion of knowledge.”  This failure to support financially a museum whose basic function is “diffusion of knowledge” is not limited to the University of Washington, but pervades natural history museums throughout the country.  Shaw and Robins (1998) suggest that “collections built largely upon the strengths, drive, and soul of a single individual are more at risk than those collections that are part of a multidisciplinary community.

The University of Washington Fish Collection has undergone remarkable changes in the past 25 years.  The future of the Collection rests to a large degree on the leadership of the Curator and his success in attracting permanent long-term financial support.



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