Which whale is named for a whaler and Smithsonian Institute executive?


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It may sound horrific today that a respected animal researcher would not just work with whaling industries, but would actually man the harpoon that killed the animals, but in the 1800s the lack of basic information on cetaceans (whales, dolphins, porpoises) forced animal enthusiasts to juggle many jobs.

Frederick W. True (1858-1914) spent his life dedicated to the researcher of marine mammals, specializing in cetaceans, especially beaked whales. The True’s beaked whale is named for True, who helped solidify the growth of a then-young organization that would become a global leader in scientific research: the Smithsonian Institute. True began his research career in 1878 as a clerk for the U.S. Fish Commission (early incarnation of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association) and impressed his colleagues with his handling of the Commission’s display at the 1880 Berlin Fisheries Exposition.

True remained with the Commission until 1911, holding the title of Head Curator of Biology when he became the assistant secretary for the Smithsonian Institute, a role he filled until his death in 1914.

In 1899, True joined Cabot Whaling Company in Newfoundland to get closer to the animals that he had dedicated his life to studying. Unfortunately for the whales, the whaling company was interested solely in harvesting the animals, not researching them. The steam-powered ships focused on fin whales and, to a lesser extent, humpback whales. True spent most of his time photographing and chronicling the whales as they were slaughtered, diagramming them in great detail. On at least one hunting trip, True manned the harpoon himself.

Many researchers were forced to join hunting parties and expeditions to gain access to cetaceans in the 19th and 20th century due to a simple lack of access to the animals. Famous marine mammal researchers such as George Wilhelm Steller, Leonhard Stejneger and William Dall each accompanied hunting and/or discovery expeditions to gain access to difficult territories unavailable to them in any other way at the time.

True’s specialty was helping to refine the taxonomy and classification of animals. Prior to True, animal descriptions varied greatly from region to region, often leading to multiple names for the same species. Due to True’s diligence, classification was improved and the confusion reduced.