Thursday, November 28, 2019

Percy Viosca, Jr. in Talisheek, 1923

Several pictures of the Talisheek creek area were taken by Percy Viosca, Jr. on April 26, 1923. Photos from the Louisiana Digital Archives collection. Click on the images to make them larger. 

 According to Wikipedia, Percy Viosca Jr. was a freshwater and marine biologist who specialized in the fauna of Louisiana and in the aquaculture of sportfish. He identified four species of native Louisiana iris and experimented extensively with iris breeding. He was awarded bachelor's and master's degrees in science at Tulane University, where he was also appointed lecturer. He worked with the Louisiana Boy Scouts organization as well.

His early career included many scientific publications with taxonomic contributions and life histories of the animals he studied. Later, his interests shifted to methods of increasing the productivity of freshwater aquaculture. His reports on this subject often take examples from his work as a fisheries consultant and the biological supply company he operated.

Percy Viosca Jr. on the Talisheek bridge railing

While working for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries in the field of herpetology, he documented the coastal Louisiana landscape. His work also included mosquito control, riparian and marshland studies, flood control, taxonomic work with native Louisiana irises, newts, and snakes, culture of crawfish and environmental impact of oil refinery practices. Throughout his life, Viosca was concerned with the conservation of wild places in his state. 

Percy called attention to coastal erosion in Louisiana in 1925, stating that man made flood protection, deforestation, deepening channels, and the cutting of navigation and drainage canals across the southern Louisiana marshes, as a cause for erosion.

According to a Louisiana State University article about Viosca,  Former Secretary of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, Joe L. Herring, who worked with Viosca in the 1950s and  early1960s said that “Percy was probably the greatest naturalist to work in the South.” Viosca knew Louisiana’s flora and fauna, its land and waters better than most. According to noted marine biologist Dr. Gordon Gunter, “few people have ever known one part of the earth and the life that lived upon it as well as Percy Viosca knew Louisiana.”

A large number of Viosca's materials and photographs are archived in the LSU collections of historic Louisiana documents.  

 Bayou Lacombe is shown in this photograph, taken in 1936, with Viosca (at right) and another man standing near a large cypress. Viosca is stretching out his arms to touch a root.

In his biography published online by LSU, it was noted that "Paul Percy Viosca Jr. was born in New Orleans on June 24, 1892. While he attended Tulane  University,  he was later fond of saying, he received his highest degree from the ‘university of hard knocks’ –the  wilds  and  waters  of  Orleans  and  St.  Tammany  Parishes. He  taught  at Tulane  as  a  student  assistant  and  an  instructor  before  leaving  in  1916  to  set  up  the  Southern  Biological Supply Company, which supplied specimens of crawfish and other aquatic life for research and commercial use,as  well  as  advising  industry.  While  he  remained  president  of  his  company  and  headed  its  research department,  Viosca  also  became  one  of  the  country’s  first  free-lance  biologists."

Young Viosca with his microscope

 "In the era when the terms ecology and conservation had just started to be used, Percy Viosca Jr. was traveling the state studying the effect of industrial pollution on its waterways, and how the exploitation of Louisiana’s natural resources was impacting the quality of its environment and the number and diversity of its wildlife and plants. As early as 1925 he was writing about the long-term dangers of unrestrained development on the state"

"As well as publishing many scientific articles and technical reports, Percy Viosca Jr. frequently gave talks to scientific societies, sportsmen’s groups and garden societies, usually illustrated with his own photographs. He was also active in a number of organizations. 

 The Louisiana Outdoor Writers Association named him “Outstanding Conservationist of the Year” in 1960 but, typically, he was studying shrimp in the gulf and could not be present for the ceremony. Just before his death the following year, he was named by Tulane University as “Biologist of the Year” in recognition of his nearly fifty-year contribution to biology. 

His pamphlets, articles, and books will be studied for years into the future as the founding documents of the scientific study of Louisiana fisheries and wildlife.  

In 1962, the Transactions of the American Fisheries Society published this account of his life.

"Few people have ever known one part of the earth and the life that lived upon it as well as Percy Viosca knew Louisiana. He was the foremost naturalist of the South in his day. Fields in which he made discoveries and contributions concerned wild irises, alligators and other reptiles, frogs, salamanders, fishes, penaeid shrimp, warm-water pond culture of fishes and crawfish, monarch butterflies, estu­arine mollusks, mosquitoes and the teaching of nature study, biology, and conservation.

"Due to the multiplicity of his interests the finished products of his pen did not keep up with his discoveries. I remember well one Easter morning when he told the Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists that if he were dropped out of an airplane blindfolded with a parachute anywhere in the State of Louisiana, as soon as he could find a garter snake or a wild iris, he could tell what parish he was in. This astounded some of the august gentlemen, but Viosca had no braggadocio about him.

"He was a Creole with unfailing courtesy. His most charming characteristic was a fresh and childlike enthusiasm for any phenomenon of life, which he maintained undiminished right up until the moment of his demise. He received his Bachelor's and Master's degrees from Tulane University, and is the most out­standing biologist that institution has pro­duced. He taught there for a few years, but  the regularity of the academic life was not for him. 

"For one thing, he could not take trips of several days' duration into the marshes and swamps. Therefore, he became biologist for the Louisiana Wild Life and Fisheries Com­mission and its predecessors, and due to the vagaries of state politics, was in and out of office four times between 1916 and the time of his death on 27 August 1961. 

"He founded the Southern Biological Supply House, but paid a great deal more attention to the collec­tion of rare live specimens than to the paying details of his business. He helped the Japa­nese get started in bullfrog culture and soon they were underselling him. With Mrs. Viosca he started the garfish scale jewelry business in the United States.

"In many fields of knowledge Percy Viosca passed by, took a look, wrote a few papers, and then went on to something else. His older papers in the Transactions originally set forth many of the ideas which have later become part and parcel of the thought of warm-water fish culturists. In fact, it was with some in­terest that I noted a recent French book on fish culture which cited Viosca in several places, although neglecting the more recent American literature.

"Viosca worked with young people and he gave hundreds of prepared and impromptu talks to children in schools and other organizations. He would tell anybody and every­body what he was doing and what he thought. without holding hack, and it never crossed his mind that he should shy away from ques­tions. This attitude was highly appreciated by the newsmen. 

"He gave simple answers about fisheries and wildlife, with a flair of his own, and he was so successful that the South's largest newspaper wrote an editorial at his death on the newspapermen's appreciation of his interviews and help. So, in essence, Viosca was a teacher, although he was not nom­inally employed as such, and several younger men received their initial impetus from him. Some of them have attained world-wide recognition in Zoology.

"Percy Viosca was born in New Orleans on 24 June 1892, and died there on 27 August 1961. He was a member of the American Fisheries Society for forty-two years. He hewed out a unique career along paths that nobody else traveled, and he followed Audu­bon in the great tradition of the Creole natu­ralists. He served his State and Nation well., and Louisiana is a better place for his having passed through."

Transactions of the American Fisheries Society,

Viosca in 1949

See also:

Trapping Insects for Science