The Consummate Collector from Guyana

1970s

The Consummate Collector from Guyana

Era: 

  • 1968 - 1982

About 15 years ago, I got a phone call from the public entrance of the ROM. “Mr. Courtman from Guyana would like to meet somebody from mammalogy,” said the admissions staff at the front desk. I was immediately intrigued by this surprise visitor, if he was who I thought he was.

David Courtman was with his wife and a close family friend who called him “Uncle,” as is the custom in Guyana. He was a distinguished-looking gentleman who appeared younger and fitter than his sixty-something years of age. He was nicely attired in a suit and tie, which he had bought just for this visit to the ROM, as I would find out later the following week.

“In the 1970’s, I collected bats for the Royal Ontario Museum,” he proudly told me as we made our way to the staff entrance to sign in.

“Yes, I know,” I replied.

While descending into the bowels of the curatorial centre for a behind-the-scenes tour of mammalogy, he told me again his association with the museum, just for reassurance. The first curator of mammals at the ROM was Dr. Randolph Peterson, whose usual strategy was to go to a country once on a fieldtrip and make contacts with local people and train them to do further collecting for the museum. He did fieldwork in Guyana in 1961. But it was his former graduate student Dr. Brock Fenton, professor-emeritus at the University of Western Ontario and ROM research associate, on another expedition in 1970 who enlisted Mr. Courtman, the local field assistant, to catch bats and then ship the specimens to Canada.

Back on our tour, one of the first stops was in the workroom where two large fire-proof cabinets store the mammalogy field catalogues and accession books. I pulled out the second drawer and removed 16 catalogue sheets from the ledger-size file folder with his name on it. He stood in silent shock, as if being reunited with a long-lost friend and not knowing what to say. He recognized his handwriting and told his wife so. After a moment of quietly thumbing through the pages, he took out a small video camera from his suit pocket and started to record everything.

Over a four-year period, Mr. Courtman had collected 246 specimens representing 30 species of bats. One of those bats was only the third known example of a new species from Guyana that was described by Dr. Peterson just a few years earlier in 1968. Continuing on our tour, I took them into the collection room and slid out a tray of bats. Another silent pause of realization was followed by an exclamation of, “Those are my specimens!” It was like watching a kid in a candy store in his shear disbelief in the good fortune of rediscovering this cornucopia of sweet memories. He had always wondered the fate of the specimens he had sent to an unknown country over a quarter-century ago. I think he felt an anxious burden had been lifted from his conscience now that he knew we had been looking after them all these years. 

I got a phone call the next week from his “niece.” “Uncle died on the weekend,” she sadly said. “I know it’s a long way to travel, but I’ll give you the address of the funeral home just in case,” she continued. At the funeral, I found out that it was his birthday on Friday and they had a party to celebrate. In true Guyanese fashion, the Demerara rum was flowing. Uncle said it was going to be his last birthday. Everybody told him he had a little bit too much to drink. He died in his sleep that night.

The “niece” took me up to the casket to pay the last respects before the cremation. There was a look of content on his face as Mr. Courtman lay wearing the suit he had bought just for his visit to see again the specimens that he had collected for the Royal Ontario Museum.

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