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Remembering Laurence Klauber

Some Recollections Working for Laurence Klauber

My work with Mr. Klauber began following several years as part time assistant in the reptile house at the San Diego Zoo, where I came under the influence of the curators Cy Perkins and Charles Shaw, and the noted herpetologists Chapman Grant and Laurence Klauber, both of whom visited the reptile house frequently. I was just entering college at San Diego State and was thrilled when the job as Mr. Klauber's part-time assistant was offered to me at 85 cents per hour.

Mr. Klauber's laboratory was located in the basement of his home, which was on the corner of Juniper and Albatross, overlooking Lindbergh Field and San Diego Bay. The laboratory consisted of a sizeable room with a large table where most of the lab activities were focused. Microscopes, magnifying glasses, goose-necked lamps, forceps, and various measuring devices were arranged about the table. Adjacent to this central area were two smaller rooms, one containing snakes preserved in alcohol, another for the lizards and a third area for miscellaneous storage. These collections served as the basis for much of Mr. Klauber's herpetological research.

My job consisted of pickling (preserving) new reptile specimens as they arrived during the spring and summer months. The specimens came from a variety of sources including the San Diego Zoo, the Natural History Museum, reptile traders, well organized scientific expeditions and not leastly, neighborhood kids. After the specimen was painlessly put under and before its final preservation in ethyl alcohol, it was subjected to several measurements and given a numbered tag. The number was referenced in a log book where the vital statistics of what, where, when, and who were noted. During final preservation, the specimens were placed in a coiled manner into a jar where the pickling process took about a week. After that they were placed on storage shelves according to scientific classification.

During the off season in late fall, winter, and early spring, when new specimens were no longer available, the last season's specimens were brought out for further examination and data gathering. Scale counts were made over various parts of the body and recorded on data sheets. Counts included the number of plates on the belly (sometimes more than 200), scales over the back from side to side, around the mouth, nostril, and eye, as well as a variety of others. This information was statistically used to determine the speciation among closely related reptiles.

All of this might seem like so much humdrum monotony, but not always so. There were some lively times, such as when I emptied a bag on the table of what I thought would be two or three sidewinders, but turned out to be a dozen of them. What bothered me was that I didn't know exactly how many there were. I think I caught them all, but since they were slithering in all directions at once I never was certain. For a long while after that, I felt as though I needed a third eye.

For a couple of years, on rather frequent intervals, when the monotony of counting scales was about to overwhelm me, the whole building would begin to vibrate and shake along with a deafening roar, bringing me back to 100% alertness. At that time, one of the largest planes ever used by the US military, the B-36 with its ten engines would fly directly over the house on its way to Lindbergh Field. I feel certain the scale counting accuracy was enhanced considerably by these experiences some 50 years ago.

On Saturdays Mr. Klauber would often come from the house down a steep staircase where at one point the ceiling came very low and where the words "mind they skull" were prominently posted in large letters. I always enjoyed his visits during which he would answer my questions and we would exchange snake catching stories. On one early spring day during one of his visits he asked me what I was doing for Easter vacation, and I told him I had no plans. He then plunked a $50 bill on the table and said, "How about going to Baja and getting some snakes?" It didn't take long for me to organize my snake loving friends and away we went for a week. I think we earned the $50 too -- snake hunting turned out to be pretty good that week.

Frequently during scale counting sessions, Mrs. Klauber, who loved opera music, would have her record player on loud enough for me to enjoy downstairs. If ever I became too relaxed with all those beautiful sounds, a B-36 would invariably put me back on track again.

Today, as I look back on those days, I continue to realize how lucky and privileged I was a kid just out of high school to be associated with Mr. Klauber and to have contributed in a small way to his world renowned research.

Dick Schwenkmeyer -- 10 April 1998

Locating Poppa

Growing up within two miles of your grandparents is rare in today's world. But even more remarkable is growing up with a grandfather who was recognized as the international authority on rattlesnakes and sage on numerous other reptiles. I was privileged to visit with Laurence and Grace Klauber, "Poppa and Gramma" weekly throughout my childhood.

Their Bankers' Hill home was quite spacious, but locating Poppa was an easy matter even for a small child. Poppa would predictably be found in The Basement, wearing a lab coat and magnifying goggles, slightly inclining his large head of white hair over a well lit section of a long table gently holding and examining a snake or lizard. Almost always the specimen was no longer living, although a few live animals were kept in glass fronted cages. The specimen undergoing analysis had been removed from its accurately labeled specimen jar, one of many that grew to be a collection of 36,000.

Poppa never hesitated to interrupt his concentration to interact with whoever was visiting. In later years, Poppa would more often be found in his office/bedroom upstairs editing a speech or the 2nd edition of his book Rattlesnakes, Their Habits Life Histories and Influence on Mankind.

There was a third way to locate Poppa during spring and summer -- on his living room couch watching a baseball game on television.

Laurence Klauber was a man worth seeking out wherever he might be working. Regardless of what he was doing, he offered humor and uplifting warmth in the midst of his research and other daily activities.

Janet Klauber, Granddaughter of LMK -- 13 February 1998

The Gift of his Library

Witnessing Mr. Klauber's announcement of his intended gift to the Natural History Museum of his herpetological library has proved to be most memorable.

Mr. and Mrs. Klauber had invited just six of us to their home on that evening in 1967: their son Philip and his wife Detty June; Dr. Richard Phillips, then director of the museum, and his wife Christy; my husband, Dallas, and myself, a museum board member and family friend. After a very nice dinner, we were all invited into Mr. Klauber's study as he sat at his big desk with shelves of his most valued volumes behind him. After recalling his 1961 gift of his world-renowned herpetological collection to the museum, he quietly announced that the time had come for the museum also to have his journals, volumes of notes related to his scientific collection, herpetological books and publications, and other selected natural history volumes. We already knew that this collection of herpetological literature was considered to be one of the finest special libraries in private hands and expressed our whole-hearted appreciation.

Then he began to show us some of his favorites as he told the history of each one. Always meticulous in his records, there were notes about previous owners, their own notations, the prices and dates of his acquisitions, and often related comments. Never have I wished more for a tape recorder to preserve his words on this historic occasion!

When the room to house the Klauber Library at the Natural History Museum was ready in 1968, his collection was delivered, catalogued, and dedicated. I am grateful for my small part in its presence.

Mary Clark -- 8 February 1998

One snake that never made it to the collection

Mr. Klauber enlisted family and friends to look out for snakes for him, either live or DOR (dead on the road). "A million years ago," long before either his daughter Alice or I were married, she and I were on a drive in the back country with friends. Alice spotted a snake of some kind. Happy to help, we all managed to get it into a bag which we tied "securely" and put in the trunk of the car. Back at the Klauber home on Juniper Street, we took the bag out, only to find it empty. That snake was never seen again. It probably much preferred living out its life in the lining of the car to keeping company with the others in jars on a shelf in the Klauber's basement.

Dallas Clark -- 8 February 1998

Book Collector

A man's library reflects the man himself -- his interests, his scholarship, his patience and often his detective instinct . . .

The greatest privilege I have had as city librarian of the San Diego Public Library has been the privilege of working with and knowing and learning from Mr. Klauber. He was a "tower of strength" on our library board from 1942 to 1968, a period of 26 years, and president of the board for most of that time.

His intelligence and clear mind cut through nonessentials to the heart of the matter. His sense of humor was a sheer delight, so that serious discussions often exploded into bursts of spontaneous laughter, and yet his gentleness and consideration for other human beings was unfailing.

Mr. Klauber was an inveterate user of libraries . . . He read rapidly, mystery stories and short stories as well as informational and scientific books and journals. The San Diego Public Library borrowed quantities of books for him on inter-library loan from other libraries all over the United States, and occasionally even from England . . .

[About becoming a herpetologist] He once told a reporter that it all began when he was 37 years old. Harry Wegeforth had heard that Mr. Klauber had some pet snakes when he was a boy, so he asked him to identify some snakes that had been given to the zoo. "I found," said Mr. Klauber, "that I knew nothing at all about snakes. I obtained some books and started studying." Later Dr. Kelly of Johns Hopkins started him on bibliography, and from that time on, he collected both snakes and literature.

If you have read even a few pages in Mr. Klauber's Rattlesnakes, a two volume encyclopedia, published in 1956 by the University of California press, you know it covers not only a great mass of scientific data but a great deal of material of interest to the laymen -- folklore, tall tales, and history. A clue to its thoroughness is the detailed index, 75 pages long in fine print, and the bibliography which includes 3,300 citations of publications. But do not let its scholarliness frighten you, for every page is readable and interesting.

The herpetological library which Mr. Klauber gave to the Natural History Museum shortly before his death is one of the finest, if not the finest, ever gathered together by one individual. It includes 1462 books, 19,000 pamphlets, 20 drawers of hand written catalogue cards, 198 loose-leaf binders of scientific notes and quantities of other material . . .

The importance of this library to the Natural History Museum cannot be over-estimated. It represents almost fifty years of discriminating book collecting by an expert . . . It would be impossible to build a similar collection today.

Clara E. Breed. City Librarian -- in Remarks at the Annual Meeting of the San Diego Society of Natural HIstory, July 14, 1969

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