Snethlage, Emilie

At a Glance:

Ornithologist, Museum Director

Nationality:

Prussian / German

Bird names: 2

Regions studied:

Brazilian Amazon

Emilie Snethlage [link]

Content note: this profile contains discussion of MURDER AND COLONIALISM.

The Birds:

Snethlage’s Tody-Tyrant [link]
Snethlage’s Antpitta – photo by Hector Bottai [link]

The Name:

Dr Emilie Snethlage (1868-1929) was born in Prussia, in what would a few years after her birth become the German Empire. Showing an interest in birds from a young age, she would spend time in England and Ireland as a governess to help her raise funds to persue her passion, which would initially be fulfilled by her gaining a Doctorate of Science with first class honours. This was despite the absurd limitations put on women studying at this point; only recently allowed to attend university at all, and had to arrive early, he concealed behind screens and were not allowed to speak in any way during class, allegedly to “avoid distracting the gentlemen present”.

Just the following year, she would head to Brazil to continue her work as an ornitholigst, leading numerous trips into less well known sections of the country in association with a series of Museums, which while focusing on birds also included the collection of ethnographical items. Unusually for the time, many of these expeditions were fairly unobtrusive – sometimes travelling solo or just accompanied by a single assistant, sometimes guided by Indiginous people.

She is credited with laying some of the core foundations of Brazilian ornithology, corresponding with a network of other naturalists, and her work resulting in the description of 60 new species and subspecies – in many instances giving the binomial eponym credit to her assistants in the field. Perhaps among her most notable achievements was the publishing that same year of the “Catalogue of Amazonian Birds” which covered over 1100 species and would be the primary text for Brazilian Birds for much of the following century.

She was also by all accounts a woman with considerable fortitude – one account mentions her carrying an anteater at a brisk pace for two hours, while in 1914 she got an infected would after her finger was bitten by a piranha and ended up cutting some of it off herself with a machete.

In 1929 at the age of 61 she would set out on what would be her last expedition: a trip to the Madeira River, but would sadly die of heart failure in the town of Porto Velho during the trip. Her legacy however continued to have a positive impact after her death – with her role as director of several Museums in Brazil helping to open up the sciences to women, and her ornithological work acting as a cornerstone to modern ornthiology of the largest nation of South America.

Alex Holt

Sources:

  • Among the Burds and New(work)s: Material and Social Practices in the Trajectory of Ornithologist Emilie Snethlage [link]
  • Emilie Snethlage – Obituary in The Ibis [link]
  • Emília Snethlage (1868-1929): an unprecedented account of a trip to the Tocantins River and the obituary of Emil-Heinrich Snethlage [link]
  • Emilie Snethlage, pioneer scientist in Brazil: an inspiring woman [link]