Brewer’s duck, in J.J. Audubon, <i>Birds of America</i>, octavo ed., 1843 (Linda Hall Library)

Brewer’s duck, in J.J. Audubon, Birds of America, octavo ed., 1843 (Linda Hall Library)

Thomas Mayo Brewer

NOVEMBER 21, 2018

Scientist of the Day - Thomas Mayo Brewer

Thomas Mayo Brewer, an American ornithologist, was born Nov. 21, 1814.  Coming from a wealthy Boston family, and trained as a physician at Harvard, Brewer soon gave up medicine for birds, which became his lifetime passion.  He became a friend of John James Audubon in the 1830s, when Audubon did not have a lot of friends, and sent Audubon descriptions and specimens, usually of birds but sometimes mammals, as they came to him.  Audubon rewarded Brewer with several eponyms.  Brewer had sent Audubon a collection of small rodents from New England, and one, a mole from Martha's Vineyard, turned out to be a new species.  Audubon named it Parascalops breweri, Brewer's shrew mole, and illustrated it in Quadrupeds of North America (we show here the lithograph from the octavo edition (1849-54, second image).

In 1822, Audubon had shot a duck, unknown to naturalists, in Louisiana, and when he later described it in Birds of America, he said: “I have named this duck after my friend Thomas M. Brewer of Boston, as a mark of the estimation in which I hold him as an accomplished ornithologist."  He called it Anas breweri, Brewer's duck, and we show here the illustration from the octavo edition (1840-44) that we have in our collections (first image).

Among professional ornithologists, Brewer is best known for his joint-authorship of A History of North American  Birds (3 vols., 1874, third image), which he compiled with Spencer Baird and Robert Ridgway - the three were arguably the three best ornithologists in North America at the time.  Baird said in the introduction that the technical descriptive matter was prepared by himself and Ridgway, but the accounts of the habits of all the species were "from the pen of Dr. Brewer."  One of the birds described was the third of Brewer's eponymous creatures, Brewer's blackbird.  One of the curious features of the History of North American Birds is that while there are frequent wood engravings in the text, the color plates at the end show exclusively heads.  The plate shown here depicts blackbirds (fourth image).  The third one on the left, the unremarkably plain black head, is Brewer's blackbird.  The images were drawn by Ridgway and a collaborator.

Do the eponyms stop there?  What about Brewer’s yeast? Brewer’s spruce?  Brewer’s theorem?  Brewer’s lupine? Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable?  Alas, our Brewer was unrelated to the other eponymous Brewers, who appear to be multifarious.

Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City. Comments or corrections are welcome; please direct to