Born in Tuntschendorf, Silesia, Paul Bartsch (1871-1960) received an early interest in nature from his father, who was an entrepreneur and amateur naturalist, and an interest in medicine probably from his mother, who had received a degree in obstetrics at the University of Breslau. As a result of a depression in the 1880s, the elder Bartsch went into financial bankruptcy. By utilizing the last savings of Bartsch's mother, the Bartsch family was able to emigrate to the United States, finally settling down in Burlington, Iowa.
Paul Bartsch was at first determined to become an ornithologist, but after talking to Professor Samuel Calvin, geologist at the State University of Iowa, he instead enrolled for course work which included a broad spectrum of the various sciences. Before completing his degree, Bartsch left for Washington, D.C., to accept a position as an aid with William H. Dall, honorary curator of the Division of Mollusks, United States National Museum.
After entering into research on mollusks, Bartsch expanded his activities, pursuing ornithological investigations and teaching biology and zoology to university students. Interested in medicine and the biological training of medical students, Bartsch began teaching histology at the Medical School of Howard University in 1899. This position lasted for thirty-seven years when he became director of the Histological and Physiological Laboratory. In 1900, Bartsch began teaching zoology at George Washington University, becoming professor emeritus in 1945.
Bartsch's work at the United States National Museum, meanwhile, led to his appointment as assistant curator of the Division of Mollusks in 1905, and then curator of that division in 1914. He retired from his duties at the Smithsonian Institution in 1946. Bartsch's work on explorations included positions as the Smithsonian representative on board the Albatross Philippine Expedition (1907-1909) and director of the Thomas Barrera expedition to Cuba (1914); he received the Walter Rathbone Bacon Travelling Scholarship to explore the West Indies (1928-1930) and was director of the first Johnson-Smithsonian deep-sea expedition to the West Indies (1933), all of which are documented to some extent in these papers. In his expedition to the West Indies Bartsch was aided by his friend Carlos de la Torre. This resulted in their collaboration on the publications regarding the Annulariidae of Cuba, the Bahamas, and Hispanola, and the Cyclophoridae of the Americas. Their monograph, The Terrestrial Mollusks of the Family Urocoptidae in the Island of Cuba, is still unpublished.
This collection contains almost no private correspondence (for official correspondence see Museum of Natural History, Division of Mollusks, Record Unit 73).
Besides receiving his Ph.D. degree from the University of Iowa in 1905, Bartsch was awarded an honorary Doctor of Science degree from George Washington University (1937). He was president of the Wild Flower Preservation Society (1920-1924), president of the Biological Society in Washington, D.C. (1913-1915), and vice-president of the Washington Academy (1913-1915), among other numerous memberships and offices which he held in scientific societies.