Modern history

The Scientist

Late on the afternoon Charles Bruder died, a balding man with a bemused professorial air, thin and ruddy as a stalk of rhubarb, strolled through the lobby of the Essex and Sussex in a crisp blue serge suit with three buttons, his ever-present pipe on his lips or not far distant. The suit was identical to the size and style he had worn a decade earlier at his Harvard graduation and would remain his trademark for another thirty years.

John Treadwell Nichols was impressively tall, with a stooped frame and preternaturally long head and wry manner that made him appear older than his thirty-three years. There was about his wide-set eyes and cheekbones a certain fishlike quality that seemed entirely appropriate, as he was one of the most distinguished ichthyologists of the day. Dr. Nichols had been rousted from his specimen-crowded basement office at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, where he was the assistant curator of the Department of Recent Fishes (those in the sea, rather than fossils), by the director, Frederic Augustus Lucas. Dr. Lucas had instructed the younger man to commence what would be the first scientific investigation of a man killed by a fish in American history. Dr. Nichols, along with his young colleague, the ornithologist Robert Cushman Murphy of the Brooklyn Museum, were two of the more respected “shark men” in the country, but both utterly deferred to their aged mentor, Dr. Lucas.

Three months earlier, in April 1916, Nichols and Murphy had collaborated on a major journal article for the Brooklyn Museum Science Bulletin, “Long Island Fauna. IV. The Sharks (Order Selachii),” in which they used thirty-three pages to portray nineteen different species of sharks. After describing tiger sharks, blue sharks, thresher and dusky sharks, hammerhead sharks, and ten other species, the authors took the unusual step of removing themselves from their own article when they reached species number sixteen, “great white shark: man-eater.” Nichols and Murphy yielded the next five pages to Dr. Lucas, who had “very kindly written for this bulletin the subjoined account relating to the status of sharks as man-eaters.” Dr. Lucas's “long experience, coupled with his repeated critical investigations of ‘shark stories' that arise perennially along our seacoast, eminently fit him to write with finality upon a subject so generally misapprehended.”

Now, appearing in Spring Lake to investigate Bruder's death, Dr. Nichols, like Dr. Lucas, was not inclined to think of it as a shark-attack inquiry. Such attacks on man were rare, if not nonexistent.

Nichols had examined the torn and badly bitten body of Charles Bruder that afternoon, shortly after Dr. Schauffler's examination. Crouching over the body, he was likely appalled, perhaps sickened or angered, yet eerily fascinated by nature in its rawest form. He restrained his sympathy for the young man, to objectively consider the wounds as the quite natural acts of a fish or mammal species. But which one?

John T. Nichols would not have found it difficult to push aside distraction and plunge into the question, for he shared with his Victorian mentors a deeply romantic love of nature in all its variety. In 1890, when he was seven years old, Nichols had taken a steamship voyage across the Atlantic, and was so moved by the sight of an iceberg, he could not fall asleep that night aboard ship. “There was,” he wrote, “a first tangible, permanent picture etched in memory, to which others were to be added, and spell the beauty and romance of the vast, impersonal, omnipotent, ever-changing, but eternal sea.” After returning from a voyage around Cape Horn many years later, Nichols observed: “Once more in from the deep sea, the same old sea, deep blue out there beyond the reefs, difficult and fascinating as ever, guarding its mysteries. Back into the world, but days, weeks, months must go by before this world would seem altogether real again. . . . No, it did not seem real, some day one must wake again to contend with a world of sails and winds and rolling seas.” But Dr. Nichols was more than a quixotic dreamer; he was a modern man with a Victorian passion to learn everything.

“J. T. Nichols was a self-taught ichthyologist of the old, old school,” a colleague remembered. “He was enthusiastic about many different aspects of natural history, not just fish.”

To illustrate the life of an ichthyologist of the old school, Dr. Nichols liked to tell the story of a gentleman who, in 1907, boarded a Long Island Rail Road train with a small box containing a turtle. When the conductor came to collect the fare, he inquired what was in the box. That brought up the question of extra fare, and after a brief discussion with the passenger the conductor rendered this historic decision: “Cats and dogs is animals—but turtles is insects. Insects ride free.” That ruling was right in line with the American Museum of Natural History when Professor Nichols went to work there in 1908, fresh from Harvard. Fish were part of the Department of Insects. It wasn't until 1910 that fish won a department of their own, and Nichols became assistant curator of the Department of Recent Fishes.

Dr. Nichols spent most of his time in his large, cluttered office at the museum, bent over his rolltop desk, pipe in his teeth, pulling fish out of hundreds of jars of alcohol to measure their length and count their scales under a magnifying glass. (The alcohol, he noted, sank mysteriously low during Prohibition and was apparently sipped from.) “As I recall it through a small child's eyes,” his grandson, novelist John Nichols, remembered, “my grandfather's office at the Museum was a magical and chaotic place featuring stacks of books and papers, messy ashtrays full of burnt pipe tobacco, and countless bottles and jars of pickled fish . . . as Grandpa . . . revealed to me the secrets and mysteries of the natural world.”

By 1916, Nichols was emerging as one of the nation's most distinguished ichthyologists. Three years earlier he had founded the journal Copeia, named after the nineteenth-century scientist Edward Drinker Cope, which would survive into the twenty-first century as a prestigious ichthyologic journal. That year he was busy founding what later became the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists (ASIH) with famed New Jersey fish scholars Henry W. Fowler and Dwight Franklin. It was the first group dedicated to the scientific study of fishes, amphibians, and reptiles, their conservation, and their role in the environment. Nichols was obsessed with box turtles, which he marked with his initials on his Long Island estate for thirty years in a private habitat study. He was a respected ornithologist, an expert in weasels and bats. He banded birds, wrote the important Freshwater Fishes of China, and was an ardent fan and student of flying fish. But he was awed by and frightened by the big sharks. If he had ever seen the rare great white shark in his life, he knew little about it except its reputation as being the ferocious man-eater of the ancients.

After examining Bruder's body, Nichols held a small conference with reporters in Spring Lake to discuss his findings. To the surprise of the newspapermen, the ichthyologist declared it was not a shark that had killed the young man. Dr. Nichols's leading suspect was Orcinus orca, the killer whale. Bruder's legs had been torn off in dull, jagged cuts, wounds that recalled to Nichols the enormous blunt conical teeth with which the orca rips the lips and tongues from the great whales.

Nichols's choice in 1916 was not surprising. Since antiquity, the killer whale had been reputed to be a man-eater, a voracious, merciless predator that killed everything that lived in the sea. Spanish whalers in the eighteenth century christened the species “killer whale” after witnessing schools of orca descending upon and killing other whales, like a pack of wolves. It was only in the 1960s and '70s, after killer whales were trained to perform at Sea World, that scientists began to appreciate the orca as the smartest member of the dolphin family, and to accept the fact that there are no documented cases of an orca ever killing a man.

The killer whale, Nichols told reporters in Spring Lake, was called orca and was “commonly 30 feet long” with “short, stumpy teeth which are very efficacious in dragging things under the surface”—which explained why Bruder was repeatedly pulled beneath the waves. The orca kills the giant blue whale, the largest creature on earth, Dr. Nichols pointed out, and could easily destroy a man if it chose. “It is not settled that the killer whale attacks humans,” concluded The New York Times, “but Mr. Nichols thought there was as much reason to suppose it was a killer whale as to suppose it was a shark.”

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