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Among the birds in the forest

The ornithologist Emilia Snethlage undertook pioneering research in the Amazon region at the start of the twentieth century


The German zoologist Emilia Snethlage landed in Belém in 1905 to work at the Goeldi Museum and, right from the outset, began to make history. She was the first female civil servant hired by the State of Pará and by the museum, at the invitation of the then museum director Emílio Goeldi, who was Swiss. In 1909 she journeyed on foot across an unknown region, between the Xingu and Tapajós rivers, in the Amazon region, accompanied only by Indian guides. She was made the director of the Museu Goeldi on two separate occasions. Prior to this, she was one of the first German women to attend a university, in Berlin. With this profile, it is not hard to imagine her in the middle of the jungle with a shotgun slung over her shoulder and a notebook in her hands, with her eyes always on the foliage of the trees, observing birds. “Her Catálogo de aves amazônicas [Catalog of Amazonian birds], published in 1914, is a very detailed work that became a compulsory reference for all ornithologists in subsequent decades,” states the science historian Miriam Junghans, who is studying for her doctorate at the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation and is a student of this subject.

Emilia Snethlage was born in the State of Brandenburg, near the city of Berlin. At the age of 21 she began to teach children at home in Germany, England and Ireland. However, at the age of 31 she changed course and began to study natural history at the University of Berlin. According to Miriam the money may have come from the savings she built up over the previous 10 years, or from a small inheritance that she received at the time. Emilia also studied at Jena and Freiburg, where she completed her doctorate in 1904.

Upon her return to Berlin, she worked as a zoology assistant for the ornithologist Anton Reichenow, who was the dean of the Natural History Museum. It was through him that she found out that Emílio Goeldi was looking for someone with a background in natural sciences – a specialty that was non-existent at that time in Brazil – and who was proficient in German. Emilia was 37 at the time and faced the prospect of spending her entire career as a research assistant in museums in Germany, whereas in the Amazon region she would always be in the field, would be able to make a difference as a scientist and could stay in touch with the European institutions, journals and specialists via correspondence and the occasional trip.

At the Museu Goeldi, Emilia started off as assistant to Emílio Goeldi, who gave her guidance for her research on birds. “She carried on with the project that he had begun in 1900. Goeldi returned to Switzerland in 1907 and Emilia took over as head of the zoology section; in 1914 she published the Catálogo de aves amazônicas,” points out Nelson Sanjad, a researcher of science history at the Museu Goeldi. “But her really original works were the studies about the biogeography of birds, which showed their geographical distribution in the Amazon region.”

In 1909, she spent four months crossing the area between the Xingu and Tapajós rivers in the company of seven Kuruaya Indians – four men and three women. This exploratory adventure – which took place amidst malaria attacks – overturned an old assumption that the two rivers were connected and resulted in a collection of botanical and zoological specimens, as well as ethnographical surveys.

After 1914, she was twice director of the museum during a period underscored by the First World War and by a shortage of money and support for the institution. Because she was German, she experienced hostility and was removed as a director on both occasions. In 1922 she was transferred to the Museu Nacional museum, in Rio de Janeiro, and continued to wander through the Brazilian jungles until 1929, when she died of a heart attack in Porto Velho. She was 61 years old. She never married nor had any children. “Emilia Snethlage lived for science and came across as an ascetic. Nevertheless, this does not mean that she was sad. You can sense the joy in her reports when she was writing about the birds and the Indians,” concludes Miriam Junghans.