Oberholser, Harry Church (1870–1963)

Type: Biography

Published: 1976

Updated: May 1, 1995

Harry Church Oberholser, ornithologist, son of Jacob and Lavera S. Oberholser, was born on June 25, 1870, in Brooklyn, New York. He attended Columbia University in the late 1880s but left without a degree. He returned to school at George Washington University, where in 1914 he received his B.A. and M.S. and in 1916 his Ph.D. He worked for the United States Bureau of Biological Survey (later the United States Fish and Wildlife Service) from 1895 to 1941, first as an ornithologist, later as a biologist, and finally as an editor. In 1941 he moved to Cleveland, Ohio, as curator of ornithology at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. Beginning in 1904, in addition to his regular work, Oberholser taught courses in zoology and ornithology at several colleges, delivered many series of lectures on conservation and birds, and made extensive ornithological explorations in the United States and Canada.

In 1900, when he was sent to the Big Bend by the United States Bureau of Biological Survey to conduct field investigations on the distribution of birds and mammals, he began collecting material that resulted in the monumental two-volume work published by the University of Texas Press in 1974, eleven years after his death. The work, entitled The Bird Life of Texas, contains 1,108 pages and includes thirty-six watercolors and thirty-six black-and-white drawings of Texas birds by wildlife artist Louis Agassiz Fuertes, who accompanied Oberholser and Vernon Bailey, a mammalogist, to the Big Bend. The book also contains thirty-eight photographs and numerous distribution maps. Oberholser died in 1963, leaving 12,000 pages of manuscript encompassing fifty years of findings on taxonomy of North American birds related to Texas. Edgar B. Kincaid, Jr., a student of Texas bird life, was chosen to edit the work. Kincaid had previously worked with Oberholser in condensing and updating his data; their objective was to reduce the work to publishable length, from three million to one million words. Kincaid retained detailed descriptions of plumages and taxonomic treatment, considered by Oberholser to be his most important scientific contribution; all other sections were condensed. Publication of the two-volume work was made possible by a gift from Verna Hooks McLean, wife of Marrs McLean. Mrs. McLean established a fund at the University of Texas in honor of her mother, Corrie Herring (Mrs. Joseph Lamar) Hooks. Mrs. Hooks, of Beaumont, had heard Oberholser lecture in her hometown, and she later furnished many of her records for use in his book.

Microfilm copies of Oberholser's original uncut manuscript are in the Barker Texas History Center, University of Texas at Austin, and in the library of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. Other publications by Oberholser include Birds of Mt. Kilimanjaro (1905), Birds of the Anamba Islands (1917), and The Bird Life of Louisiana (1938). He was a fellow in the American Ornithologists Union and a member of the Ohio and Indiana academies of science. He belonged to many ornithological and natural-history societies all over the United States and in many foreign countries, including South Africa, India, Australia, Switzerland, Germany, and Denmark. Oberholser was married to Mary Forrest Smith on June 30, 1914. He died in Cleveland, Ohio, on December 25, 1963.

Austin American-Statesman, September 29, 1974. Who's Who in America, 1948–49.

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Anonymous, “Oberholser, Harry Church,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed October 24, 2021, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/oberholser-harry-church.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

May 1, 1995