Very little information exists about nature photographer and naturalist, Robert A. Gilbert. As is often the case with Black historical figures in the U.S., his contributions went largely unrecognized during his lifetime and are now virtually lost to history. Recently, however, brief descriptions of his life and his natural history work have been published by the Audubon and Biodiversity Heritage Library, largely based on the biography written by John Mitchell. Now, more than 2000 photos in the Massachusetts Audubon archives are suspected to have been captured by Gilbert.
Robert Alexander Gilbert was born in 1870 in Natural Bridge, Virginia near Lexington. At sixteen, he relocated to Boston, Massachusetts where he spent the remainder of his life. Sometime later he began working as a laboratory assistant at Harvard Medical School before becoming an assistant to ornithologist William Brewster (one-time curator at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology). Initially, Gilbert collected and prepared bird specimens, among other tasks, for Brewster’s private museum collection but eventually, Gilbert would serve as a field guide, collaborator and photographer on expeditions. Gilbert became a birder and ornithologist in his own right, spotting, photographing and identifying birds, sometimes by their calls, during field work. He further commanded sufficient knowledge of their natural history to likely have authored uncredited portions of Brewster’s The Birds of the Lake Umbagog Region of Maine.
Gilbert was ultimately employed at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology (MCZ) and became an associate of the American Ornithologists’ Union. At the museum, he oversaw the design of exhibit halls, prepared skeletal material and performed other tasks that suggest a position akin to a curatorial assistant. Although he otherwise remains a hidden figure, what is written about Robert Gilbert by his colleagues paints a picture of a man respected for his work ethic, dedication and passion for his craft. Today, there is a room appropriately named in his honor at the Harvard MCZ.