Lee Passmore (1874–1958)

Levi Nickerson Passmore was born in Ontario, Canada to an American father and a Canadian mother who. Raised in Canada, he arrived in San Diego in 1908 where he established a photography studio. He used to spend time down at the San Diego harbor as a barker and guide for excursions and tours. He shot many photos of the activities of early life in San Diego, such as the early tuna fishing industry, the harbor, Old Town, and the 1915 Exposition in Balboa Park. In 1914, he also documented for the first time in photographic history the existence of the flumes at Mission Dam, which revealed how missionaries had transported water to the Mission.

By around 1930 he had become obsessed with using his photographic techniques for observing and studying nature, including such things as tarantulas, black widows, mud dauber wasps, and rattlesnakes. He was an early member of the San Diego Society of Natural History.

A citizen scientist whose work had a lasting impact, Passmore discovered and documented on film many aspects of spiders that were unknown to science at the time, despite his lack of any formal education. Because of his many hours in the desert spent studying and painstakingly observing trapdoor spiders, he was able to carefully excavate the burrows of this spider, opening up one side while leaving the burrow intact. This allowed him to photograph the interiors of the burrows, for the first time.

Because of the time and patience he was willing to commit to his study, he documented how the trap- door spider creates a hinged door that fits the opening so perfectly it is rarely noticed, how it waits for its prey, how mating activity takes place, and how the female spider protects her offspring. Prior to his study, these activities and behaviors were not known. It has been suggested that during WWII, GIs used his images to perfect the construction of their foxholes.

Passmore’s research and photography were featured in an issue of National Geographic entitled “California Trapdoor Spider Performs Engineering Marvels,” in 1933. Over a period of some 20 years, he published many other articles and photographs on natural history in magazines such as Popular Science, Nature, and Life.

In 1958, Passmore donated his glass plate negatives, photographs, and other photographic materials to the Entomology Department of the Museum, including hundreds of images of trapdoor spiders, bees, wasps, reptiles, and other insects. He died on December 12, 1958 at 84.

Engstrand, Iris and Anne Bullard. 1999. Inspired by Nature: The San Diego Natural History Museum after 125 Years. San Diego: San Diego Society of Natural History.
<Leepassmore.com> Website maintained by Julian Jenkins, Lee Passmore’s great grandson and photographer at Jenkins Photography.