Leonhard Stejneger (1851-1943) was born in Bergen, Norway, and received his early education there. Later he studied medicine and law at the University of Kristiania. Stejneger's interest in zoology began at an early age, for he produced his earliest field notes in ornithology in 1867. Four years later his first zoological paper was published, and in 1873 his first book was published. He described his first bird, Lanius bairdi, in 1878. In 1881 he left Norway for the United States and arrived in Washington, D.C., where be soon began working with the birds of the New World at the Smithsonian Institution, particularly aquatic birds. In December 1884 he was appointed assistant curator in the Department of Birds under Robert Ridgway, curator. In 1889 after the resignation of Henry Crecy Yarrow, honorary curator of the Department of Reptiles and Batrachians, Stejneger became the first full-time curator for the Department. In 1903 he served as acting head curator of the Department of Biology for several months, and in 1911 he was appointed head curator of the Department of Biology after Frederick William True vacated the post. From that time until his death, Stejneger served both as head curator of the Department of Biology and curator of the Division of Reptiles and Batrachians. Also, for years he chaired a Smithsonian committee which considered manuscripts for publication.
In 1882 Stejneger was sent to the Commander Islands under the auspices of the U.S. Signal Service to establish observation stations. While there he studied the islands' natural history, the fur seals, and made specimen collections, including the skeleton of a sea-cow. As the problem of the fur seals and commercial sealing became an international economic and political concern, Stejneger's studies of the seals and the sealing conditions became more involved. In 1895 he was sent to the North Pacific as an attache of the U.S. Fish Commission. The next year President Cleveland appointed Stejneger to the International Fur-Seal Commission; he spent most of this time on the Pribilof and Commander Islands as well as some time in Hakodate, Japan. He returned to the Bering Sea again in 1897 to continue his studies and investigations. His last trip to the Commander Islands was in 1922 as a representative of the U.S. Department of Commerce.
As a representative of the United States National Museum, Stejneger attended several international scientific congresses. He attended the International Zoological Congresses of 1898, 1901, 1904, 1907, 1913, 1927, and 1930, as well as ornithological and fisheries congresses. He was elected to the International Committee on Zoological Nomenclature in 1898 and served as the organizing secretary for the Section on Zoogeography at the 1907 Zoological Congress. Because most of the congresses were held in Europe, Stejneger was able to study European museums and their specimens as well as European fauna and the correlation of life zones between Europe and North America.
Stejneger also made field trips to various sections of the United States and nearby areas. After joining C. Hart Merriam's biological survey of the San Francisco mountain region in 1889, he collected specimens in Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. In 1894 he took a field trip to the South Dakota Badlands. In 1900 he joined Charles W. Richmond, assistant curator in the Division of Birds, on an expedition to Puerto Rico and the West Indies, and during the summer of 1906 he studied the salamanders of Augusta County, Virginia.
After his first trip to the Commander Islands in 1882 to search for evidence of the Steller sea-cow, Stejneger began compiling data and conducting exhaustive research on Georg Wilhelm Steller, the pioneer of Alaskan natural history who accompanied Vitus Bering to North America. For approximately fifty years Stejneger researched his subject and finally published the biography of Georg Wilhelm Steller in 1936.
In addition to the above publication, Stejneger's bibliography contains more than four hundred titles. Of particular importance are Results of Ornithological Explorations in the Commander Islands and in Kamtschatka (1885), portions of the Standard Natural History (1885), edited by J. Sterling Kingsley, The Poisonous Snakes of North America (1895), The Russian Fur-Seal Islands (1896), Herpetology of Porto Rico (1904), and Herpetology of Japan and Adjacent Territories (1907). With the collaboration of Thomas Barbour of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University, Stejneger published a Check-List of North American Amphibians and Reptiles in five editions (1917, 1923, 1933, 1939, 1943).
Stejneger's correspondence as curator of Reptiles and Batrachians as well as some correspondence he conducted while assistant curator in the Department of Birds is found in the Division of Reptiles and Amphibians Records, 1873-1968 (see Record Unit 161).