Who was the first non-male American ornithologist?

Today, we celebrate a multi-generational community of exceptional female and non-binary ornithologists, who are recognized for their fundamental contributions to bird knowledge and conservation. But the fact remains that men have historically dominated the field of ornithology. Many important parts of our collective story have been forgotten, neglected, and/or ignored by historians of science. I want to change that.

Today, I’m going to tell you about the first American ornithologist who wasn’t a man. Her name was Sophonisba Angusciola Peale (1786–1859). Most people have never heard of her. I created a Wikipedia page for her on July 30, 2020. The world seems to have overlooked this amazing woman. That changes today.

Sophonisba was the daughter of Rachel Brewer Peale (1744–1790) and her famous husband, the polymath Charles Willson Peale (1741–1827). Named after an Italian Renaissance painter, like her brothers, Sophonisba was affectionately known as “Sopy”. She was born into an eccentric family of artists, scientists, inventors, and explorers. Her father was a patriot soldier and one of the most acclaimed portrait painters in America. He was also one of America’s first ornithologists.

A couple years before Sopy was born, Charles pioneered the use of arsenic in taxidermy, which greatly expanded the shelf-life of zoological specimens and enabled him to assemble the first scientific collection of bird specimens in the United States. These were displayed in the Peales’ home, which, during Sopy’s childhood, gradually transformed into the famed Philadelphia (Peale) Museum.

Left: The Long Room, Second Floor at Independence Hall, January 8, 1924. Warren A. McCullough, Photographer; right: Charles Willson Peale and Titian Ramsay Peale, The Long Room, Interior of the Front Room in Peale’s Museum, 1822, watercolor over graphite on pencil, 35.6 x 52.7 (Detroit Institute of Arts). Image and citation source: www.khanacademy.org

In January–March 1802, the Peales moved their Museum from Philosophical Hall to a larger space in the Pennsylvania State House (now Independence Hall). The bird collection was displayed in the “Long Room” on the second floor (see above). More space meant that Peale could expand his collection, and his primary method of doing so was to collect specimens of American birds to use as currency for trades with foreign collectors. His goal was to acquire new species for his collection from all corners of the globe.

During the spring migration, a couple weeks after her 17th birthday, Sopy joined her father in the field (and at the skinning table) to learn the tools and methods of ornithology. On May 31, 1803, Charles wrote proudly to his sons, Rembrandt and Rubens, who were busy touring across Europe with an articulated Mastodon skeleton (all part of the family business):

“I am now amidst my hurry of preserving birds—Sophonisba not only preserving them well but she also accompanies me in my hunting excursions and is now fond of Shooting with the little Fuzee” (Miller 1988:531).

Fusee, or Indian Trade Gun (c.1819). Reproduced from American Society of Arms Collectors Bulletin 14:18-23.

The word “fuzee” refers to a smooth-bore shotgun, known to the French as a fusee or fusil. These guns eventually became known as “Indian trade guns”, because of how fast they traveled across the continent; by the time Lewis and Clark penetrated into the western wilderness in 1803, Native American tribes were already armed with “fuzees”. It was the primary tool of the ornithologist, and Sopy was a natural.

Rubens responded from England on July 20, 1803: “It gives me pleasure to learn that Sophonisba has become a collector, I hope she may prosper in it, for I hope to pertake [sic] of the same pleasure when I return to Dear Philadelphia. I should like to see foreign countries and collect in them, but in my situation do but little.” (Miller 1988:585)

Sophonisba Angusciola Peale (1786–1859), painted in 1805 by her father, Charles Willson Peale. Watercolor and opaque watercolor with selectively applied glaze over graphite on paper. Source: Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Sopy was not focused only on taxidermy. She was also learning music. Her father’s pride is evident in a letter to another son, Raphael, on July 3, 1803: “Mr. Petricelli has given Sophonisba 4 Lessons and he says she learns quicker than any Scholar he has taught.” (Miller 1988:540). He later wrote, “She will be able to perform well on your Instruments, her Master says that she is the best Scholar he has—he gives her the most difficult pieces to execute, makes her attend to the time, giving her a knowledge of the principles—seeking to give her such musick as she has not seen or heard before.” (Miller 1988:608)

Later that summer, the yellow fever returned to Philadelphia, and the populace fled the city. “The late autumnal epidemic fevers of Philadelphia have prevailed with uncommon force,” wrote Shaw (1804), “Yet nothing effectual has hitherto been done to prevent their recurrence; and very little improvement has been made in the treatment of them, since shortly after the formidable pestilence of 1793 made its appearance.” By the end of August, 1803, about 120 deaths were reported in Philadelphia, out of 145 cases (Poulson’s American Daily Advertiser, August 25, 1803).

“State-House, with a View of Chestnut Street Philadelphia.” Plate 21 from The City of Philadelphia as it appeared in the Year 1800. Published by W. Birch.

Charles and Sopy stayed behind in Philadelphia during the epidemic, taking the opportunity to work on and renovate the Museum. Sopy was studying Latin and undertook to copy the Linnaean (Latin) and French names from a written catalog onto frames, to adorn the glass cases that contained the birds. On August 7, 1803, Charles wrote again to his sons, to update them on the museum renovations: “The Museum will now in a short time have the Catalogue in frames over each Box — Sophonisba has advanced so far, that I have now Taken out of the Room the Book Catalogue.” (Miller 1988:593)

Early ticket to Peale’s Museum, prior to its occupancy of the Pennsylvania State House. Printed 1788. Source: philamuseum.org

Thanks to Sopy, and despite the epidemic, “The Catalogue of [her father’s] birds in Latten, English and French in gilt frames covered with glass [were] now over each Case of Birds”, just in time for the public to return to the city. One of those residents was Alexander Wilson (1766–1813), who had recently moved to Kingsessing (about 4 miles from the Museum). He was just getting acquainted with the “feathered tribes” of America, and probably could have learned a thing or two from Sopy Peale, if he thought to ask. Wilson would donate his first specimen to her father’s Museum the following year.

In 1805, Sopy married Coleman Sellers (1781–1834) and eventually became the matriarch of a large family. In her later years, she practiced quilting and a surviving example is preserved in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

To my knowledge, Sophonisba Peale was the first woman in America to collect and prepare bird specimens for scientific study. She paved the way for Wilson and others who came to the Philadelphia Museum to learn about American ornithology, but her story is not well known. We can change that! Please share this link and help bring her name out of the shadows.

Philadelphia Museum of Art - Collections Object : Quilt ...
Quilt made by Sophonisba Peale Sellers (c.1850). Source: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1935-38-4.


Miller, L. B. (ed.). 1988. The Selected Papers of Charles Willson Peale and his Family. Volume 2, Part 1. Yale University Press.

Shaw, W. 1804. A practical narrative of the autumnal epidemic fever which prevailed in Philadelphia in the year 1803. Philadelphia: Printed for the author by A. & G. Way.

Categories: American History, History of Science, Natural History, Ornithology, PhiladelphiaTags: , , , , , ,

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