William S. Saul

Academy Collection Manager of Fishes from 1972 to 1999

William G. Saul was born to Mary Graybill and F. W. Saul, M.D., on 30 June 1944 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Bill attended Mason City High School in Iowa from 1960-62, and enrolled at the University of Kansas in 1962 where he graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Zoology and Spanish in 1966. That same year he participated on his first expedition to South America to collect fishes in the lower Amazon Basin of Brazil. In 1968, Bill enrolled in the graduate program at KU under the advisorship of Drs. Frank B. Cross and Gerald R. Smith. During his graduate studies, Bill conducted field work in Kansas, Missouri and Texas, and served as Curatorial Assistant in the Fish Division of the KU Museum of Natural History from 1969-1970. He also developed a keen interest in Neotropical fishes, which he credited to herpetologist Dr. William E. Duellman (Saul, 1975:93). Bill returned to South America on three separate expeditions to conduct his thesis research on the diet and habitat preferences of fishes in the Santa Cecilia region of northeastern Ecuador. His ecological study was ambitious given the dearth of basic knowledge on the taxonomy of the regional ichthyofauna. Bill soon realized this, and in a letter dated 2 July 1969 to Dr. James E. Böhlke, Academy Curator of Ichthyology, he remarked that his thesis topic had “become a more difficult task than one can imagine”. Nevertheless, Bill completed his thesis, An Ecological Study of Fishes at a site in the Upper Amazonian Ecuador, and earned a Master of Arts degree in Zoology in 1970. He published his thesis work in 1975 in the Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences. Reprints of Saul (1975) are available through the Academy Department of Ichthyology (Böhlke Memorial Library) upon request.

With a graduate degree in ichthyology, Bill found himself in great demand—from the US Armed Forces. From 1970 to October 1972 he served as an instructor and non-commissioned officer in the US Army Medical Field Service School, Preventive Medicine Division, at Fort Sam Houston, Texas. During his military service, Bill accumulated a small, yet ominous library of technical bulletins on arthropod-borne diseases ranging from hemorrhagic fever to tularemia.

In January 1972, before his anticipated date of military release, Bill again contacted Dr. Böhlke to express interest in securing a position in the Fish Department. Dr. Böhlke replied that the department was in search of a Collection Manager to fill a 1 to 5-year position funded by a recent grant from the National Science Foundation. Duties included overseeing collection-related activities, routine identifications, supervising technicians and part-time help, and possibly fieldwork to “break up the routine”; research, however, was “discouraged except after normal working hours” (J. E. Böhlke, unpubl. letter, 6 April 1972). Starting salary was $10,000. Bill had hoped that the military’s new early-out policy would make him available that summer. But “Uncle Sam [had] other ideas” (W. G. Saul, unpubl. letter, 10 April 1972), and his release was delayed until the fall. Fortunately, the position remained open, and Bill joined the Academy staff as Collections Manager of Ichthyology in early November 1972.

Academy Department of Ichthyology circa 1973. Bill (2nd from left) had joined the staff the previous year for a starting salary of $10,000.

After NSF funding expired, the Academy Collection Manager position in Ichthyology was made permanent in 1977. Bill continued as the first and sole full-time collection manager until his retirement in 1999. During his 27-year tenure at the Academy, he dutifully served under a total of five curators: Dr. James E. Böhlke from 1954–1982; Dr. William F. Smith-Vaniz from 1976–1991; Dr. Barry Chernoff from 1983–87; Dr. Scott A. Schaefer from 1988–96; and Dr. Dominique Didier from 1993–2004.

Bill truly enjoyed his work as collection manager and his contributions to the Academy are numerous and invaluable. Much of his managerial work involved facilitating the vast majority of specimen transactions (loans, exchanges, gifts) conducted by the Ichthyology Department. This was no small task considering the size, scope and significance of the collection’s type and general holdings. From December 1973 to December 1999, the loan records document approximately 1,597 transactions involving 15,135 lots and 114,476 specimens sent to hundreds of researchers at institutions throughout the world. It is no coincidence that William G. Saul is acknowledged in hundreds of ichthyological publications based on the Academy’s holdings.

Bill also was responsible for identifying, accessioning, and cataloging old and new material, and helped computerize the collection’s enormous number of specimens (approximately 1.2 million in nearly 125,000 lots as of 2000). The story of the collection’s computerization began in 1986 when Dr. Barry Chernoff, then Academy Assistant Curator of Ichthyology, received a 5-year grant from NSF to develop a relational database system to computerize and effectively manage museum collections. Julian Humphries, then at the University of Michigan, was enlisted to write the program with direct input from Dr. Chernoff and Dr. William Fink, Curator of Ichthyology at the University of Michigan (among others). Dr. Chernoff hired Eugenie Böhlke, departmental research associate from 1957–2001 and wife of Dr. James Böhlke, to supervise computerization with help from Bill Saul and several part-time assistants. The Academy Ichthyological Collection became the first institution to adopt the new database system, called MUSE. Fish collections at Cornell, Harvard, University of Michigan, the Field Museum, and many other institutions soon followed. From 1987–99, Bill databased into MUSE at least 17,279 ANSP lots of 189,829 specimens.

Bill was especially passionate about collecting and identifying fishes. He found time to “break up the routine” of management by participating in ten expeditions to four South American countries: Brazil (1993), Colombia (1973, 74, 75), Guyana (1997) and Venezuela (1977, 85, 87, 89, 91) [figs 2-5]. Details of Bill's adventures during the 1977 trip to Venezuela can be found in a transcription of James Böhlke's field journal published in a short biography by Eugenie Böhlke (1997). While at the Academy, Bill helped collect and deposit 81,201 specimens (5,882 lots) into the fish collection. To this number one may add thousands of specimens that Bill helped collect and deposit in various other museums mostly in North and South America. As of January 2001, he also is credited with identifying 136,198 specimens (in 13,454 lots) in the Academy collection.


Field crew on expedition in Venezuela, 1985. From left to right: L. Aguana, Barry Chernoff (former Academy Curator), Francisco Provenzano, Roberto Royero, John Lundberg (former Academy Curator), Bill Saul, Robert Peck (Senior Academy Fellow)

Bill preserving dead pimelodid catfishes with injections of formalin at Puerto Ayacucho, Venezuela, 1985.

Bill absorbing the shock out of an electric eel as Hector Lopez watches in amazement in Venezuela, 1989.

Bill taking field notes at Puerto Las Majadas, Venezuela, 1985.

Bill's fieldwork in South America helped facilitate the discovery of many new species of fishes, two of which honor his name: Denticetopsis sauli Ferraris 1996 [fig. 6], a species of whale catfish in the Family Cetopsidae, and Apionichthys sauli Ramos 2003, a freshwater sole in the Family Achiridae. At the time, Bill was one of few collection managers in ichthyology to be so honored. Others included Karsten E. Hartel, Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology (e.g., Dolopichthys karsteni Leipertz & Pietsch 1987, a ceratioid anglerfish); Erling Holm, Royal Ontario Museum (e.g., Creagrutus holmi Vari & Harold 2001, a South American tetra); and Ernest A. Lachner (e.g., Sueviota lachneri Winterbottom & Hoese 1988, an Indo-West Pacific goby) and Susan Jewett (e.g., Eviota susanae Greenfield & Randall 1999, a Hawaiian goby), both of the U.S. National Museum of Natural History. The goby genus Sueviota Winterbottom & Hoese 1988 also is derived in part from “Sue” for Susan Jewett.

Denticetopsis sauli, a species of whale catfish named for Bill Saul by Carl Ferraris in 1996.

One of Bill's greatest pleasures was leading behind-the-scenes tours of the Fish Department and collection for local school groups and the public. Bill enjoyed sharing tales of his collecting trips and conveyed the excitement, danger and humor of ichthyology to the delight of many visitors. Students, teachers and colleagues fondly remember his stories and songs of the urinophilic candirus (Vandellia spp.) [fig. 7], small catfishes with the rare, but obnoxious inclination for lodging themselves in the urethras of those foolish enough to micturate while submerged in Neotropical waters. For a popular educational program, Bill developed and modeled a variety of field gear specifically designed to thwart those nasty intruders [figs 8-10].

The infamous candiru catfish (Vandellia sp., MZUSP 97329)

Bill modelling candiru-resistant briefs inspired by tribal fishermen of the Brazilian Amazon.

Heavily armed for candiru sneak attacks.

Iron-clad accessory for the particularly large and aggressive candirus of the Rio Phallophaga, Peru.

Unfortunately, Bill’s knowledge of preventive medicine did not immunize him from a common illness associated with the tropics: malaria. On his last trip to South America in 1997, during a survey of the Iwokrama Forest in central Guyana, Bill became infected with the mosquito-borne protozoan Plasmodium vivax. Fortunately, Bill completely recovered and continues to pursue fishes in the relatively disease-free waters of North America. In his retirement, Bill enjoys playing golf and angling in Tennessee with his wife and high school sweetheart, Toni.

It is impossible to fully quantify the amount of work associated with managing a large and internationally significant natural history collection. It is equally impossible to measure the overall impact that a manager has on the collection in his or her long-term care. Perhaps the best testament of a manager’s effectiveness and dedication is the condition in which he or she leaves the collection to a successor. I express with sincerity that upon my arrival in 2000, I found the Academy’s Fish Collection to be in fine shape. Thanks for keeping the backlog to a minimum and for the bulging file on arthropod-borne diseases. —Mark H. Sabaj, 2002[figs. 11, 12]

Field hands by Bill Saul

This plaque of inspirational words (and the Academy’s unofficial motto) greeted Bill (and later collection managers) to the prep lab each day.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: Thanks to Barry Chernoff (FMNH) for a brief history of MUSE. Information compiled from the Academy Ichthyology Collection database, Bill Saul’s curriculum vitae and the personal correspondences of the late James Böhlke. Special thanks to Genie Böhlke for reviewing the narrative and permission to examine James Böhlke’s letters.

Böhlke, E. B. 1997. James Erwin Böhlke (1930-1982) and the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, p. 391-405 in Pietsch, T. W., and W. D. Anderson, Jr. (eds.), Collection Building in Ichthyology and Herpetology, Amer. Soc. Ichthyologists and Herpetologists Spec. Publ. No. 3, 593 p.

Ferraris, C. J., Jr. 1996. Denticetopsis, a new genus of South American whale catfish (Siluriformes: Cetopsidae, Cetopsinae), with two new species. Proc. California Acad. Sci., 49 (6):161-170.

Greenfield, D. W., and J. E. Randall. 1999. Two new Eviota species from the Hawaiian Islands (Teleostei: Gobiidae). Copeia 1999(2):439-446.

Leipertz, S. L., and T. W. Pietsch. 1987. A new species of ceratioid anglerfish of the genus Dolopichthys (Pisces: Lophiiformes) from the western North Atlantic Ocean. Copeia, 1987(2):406-409.

Ramos, R. T. C.2003. Systematic review of Apionichthys (Pleuronectiformes: Achiridae), with description of four new species. Ichthyological Exploration of Freshwaters v. 14 (no. 2): 97-126.

Saul, W. G. 1975. An ecological study of fishes at a site in upper Amazonian Ecuador. Proc. Acad. Nat. Sci. Phila. 127(12):93-134.

Vari, R. P., and A. S. Harold. 2001. Phylogenetic study of the Neotropical fish genera Creagrutus Günther and Piabina Reinhardt (Teleostei: Ostariophysi: Characiformes), with a revision of the Cis-Andean species. Smithson. Contrib. Zool., 613:i-v + 1-239.

Winterbottom, R., and D. F. Hoese. 1988. A new gneus and four new species of fishes from the Indo-West Pacific (Pisces; Perciformes; Gobiidae), with comments on relationships. Royal Ont. Mus. Life Sci. Occas. Pap. No. 37:1-17.