Arthur Cleveland Bent Papers
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.
Timeline of Bent's life