March 23, 2023
Grace Davall: Ready Reference and Recordkeeping
- as seen by -Brett Dion
Grace Davall made a unique rise through the New York Zoological Society’s (now the Wildlife Conservation Society) ranks by her varied and dynamic work at WCS’s Bronx Zoo.
In the 1920s and ‘30s, Davall corresponded directly with a zoo-curious public in addition to performing clerical and recordkeeping work for the Departments of Mammalogy and Birds. She was something of a WCS Library and Archives godparent of zoological recordkeeping and reference help in the days when there wasn’t an official staff librarian or archivist at the Bronx Zoo. She didn’t stop there. Davall also shared the good practices that she cultivated from her work and advocated for them (above, Duvall with Curator Raymond L. Ditmars, seated, and Head Keeper John Toomey with a snake in 1928.)
NYZS institutionalized her efforts with a sort of brick-and-mortar Wikipedia that operated at the zoo in the mid-20th century. As an internal newsletter stated in a 1949 profile of Davall, “[The] Question House stems directly from Grace Davall.”
What, you may question, was the Question House? In 1945, it was inaugurated as “a service that will attempt to give the best available answers to any question about animal life.” Two decades into her career, Davall had heard just about everything. She wrote about the best of those incoming queries (several thousand per year) in a 1945 issue of NYZS’s Animal Kingdom.
“How long it would take for a snake to digest a 500-pound pig…”
“Is a zebra white with black Stripes or black with white stripes?”
“How many mouse power would it take to make one horsepower?”
“How fast can an ant travel?”
“Do horses have eyebrows?”
“Why does a camel’s breath smell?”
“…what is the gestation period of elephants?…”
“Do cows have tartar on their teeth?”
Able to leave some of the questions and answers to others, Davall engaged more with animal records in the 1950s and shared her processes and results within professional forums. At the 1959 meeting of the organization that became today’s Association of Zoos and Aquariums, Davall presented on “Keeping Zoo Records.” She built on that with a perspective on the records of nyalas at the Bronx Zoo in her article for the International Zoo Yearbook, in 1965.
Known as Assistant Curator of Birds and Mammals when she retired in 1970, Davall then gained the mantle of Curator Emeritus in 1971. A few years later, the NYZS archives were formally established. With Davall no longer there to organize the internal knowledge and respond to research questions, one can imagine the Bronx Zoo deciding it was time to formalize that work by adding an archivist to the staff.
If you’d like to read more about Grace Davall, the WCS Library and Archives has written posts on her correspondence as well as a career overview.
EDITOR’S NOTE: To celebrate Women’s History Month, Wild View is featuring posts by and about women and their contributions to science and conservation throughout March.
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