Carl W. Cotton was born in 1918 in Washington Park, a section of Chicago’s South Side that confined most of the African American population in the city. At a young age, Cotton developed an interest in preserving animals, or taxidermy, and grew his skills by working on birds and squirrels, but sometimes he would memorialize and preserve the neighborhood’s family pets. Cotton had remained interested in taxidermy and began seeking employment as a taxidermist in 1940 by first sending a letter to the Field Museum of Chicago. He was politely turned down because the taxidermy department not only didn’t have any vacancies, but also because 22-year-old Cotton did not have a doctorate or professional reputation--which the museum director wrote was “practically a uniform requirement.” Cotton reached back out to the Field Museum after he served in the US Navy during World War II. This time in 1947, he asked to volunteer with taxidermy staff and receive instruction in preserving fish and reptiles to which he was accepted. Cotton was the only African American taxidermist in the Museum and studied under Leon Pray and Leon Walters for almost 25 years.
Everyone accounted Cotton as a particularly exceptional taxidermist which was apparent only weeks after he joined the department. Not only was his work described as especially satisfactory but also that he brought a great enthusiasm and eagerness to work. Most taxidermists specialize in one class of animals. While he specialized in birds, Cotton was also well versed in mounting insects, mammals, reptiles, and fish--with fish being especially difficult to taxidermy.
In 1966, Cotton took on the responsibility of designing and creating exhibits as the first staff member of the Field Museum’s exhibitions department. This opportunity granted him the ability to curate many museum displays. In this way, he bridged the “Golden Age” of taxidermy with modern practices in making dioramas. Cotton’s most famous diorama work, titled “Marsh Birds of the Upper Nile,” is still on display in the Field Museum as well as other displays of his hard work and artistry.
Cotton worked at the Field Museum from 1947 until his death in 1971 at age 53, which his youngest daughter suspected was as a result of the repeated chemical exposure to formaldehyde and arsenic for taxidermy. Few other staff members in the museum as well as visitors were aware of Carl Cotton and his contributions to the Field Museum. While the exhibitions at the Field Museum highlighting his work has helped raise awareness, very few people interested in natural history museums know about Carl Cotton and his legacy.