Waldo LaSalle Schmitt (1887-1977) was born in Washington, D.C. He developed an early interest in natural history, studying the flora and fauna of the District of Columbia and nearby Maryland. He received the B.S. degree from George Washington University in 1913; the M.A. degree from the University of California in 1916; and his Ph.D. from George Washington University in 1922. In 1948, he received an honorary Doctor of Science degree from the University of Southern California.
Schmitt began his career in government service in 1907 as an Aide in Economic Botany for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He served in that position until 1910 when he was appointed Scientific Aide in the Division of Marine Invertebrates of the United States National Museum (USNM). At USNM, he became acquainted with Mary Jane Rathbun and began to develop his interest in the study of crustacea. From 1911 to 1914, Schmitt served on the staff of the United States Bureau of Fisheries as Scientific Assistant and Naturalist aboard the Albatross during its cruises along the west coast of America and Alaska. Crustacean collections surveys made on the Albatross provided the material for Schmitt's M.A. thesis, "The Marine Decapod Crustacea of California." In 1915, Schmitt returned to the United States National Museum as Assistant Curator in the Division of Marine Invertebrates. From 1915 to 1920, he also served as part-time instructor of Zoology at George Washington University. In 1920, Schmitt was named Curator of the Division of Marine Invertebrates and remained in that capacity until 1943 when he was appointed Head Curator of the Department of Biology. The Department of Biology was split into the Departments of Zoology and Botany in 1947, with Schmitt as Head Curator of Zoology. Upon his retirement in 1957, Schmitt was named Honorary Research Associate and continued his association with the Smithsonian Institution until his death on 5 August 1977.
Schmitt participated in numerous biological expeditions and field trips during his career. Under the auspices of the United States Bureau of Fisheries, he spent the summer of 1918 studying the life history of the spiny lobster at the Scripps Institution, La Jolla, California. During the summers of 1924 and 1925, Schmitt was at the Carnegie Institution's Marine Laboratory at Tortugas, Florida, surveying the crustacean fauna of the area, identifying crustaceans found in the stomachs of fishes, and taking underwater photographs. He also participated in field work at Tortugas during the summers of 1930, 1931, and 1932. In 1925, Schmitt was awarded the Smithsonian's Walter Rathbone Bacon Traveling Scholarship "for the study of the fauna of countries other than the United States." The scholarship enabled him to collect marine invertebrates along the east coast of South America from August to December, 1925, and on the west coast from August 1926 to May 1927.
During the years 1933 to 1935, Schmitt was a member of three expeditions to the Galapagos Islands sponsored by G. Allan Hancock of Los Angeles, California. While on these trips, Schmitt became acquainted with a group of utopian colonists on Florena Island in the Galapagos, who attracted considerable attention in the world press by their intrigues and mysterious behavior. As a guest of G. Huntington Hartford, he explored and collected in the West Indies on the Smithsonian-Hartford West Indies Expedition of 1937. In 1938, Schmitt was chosen by the White House to accompany President Franklin D. Roosevelt as Naturalist on the Presidential Cruise to Clipperton, Cocos, and the Galapagos Islands. In 1939, Schmitt was a member of the Hancock South America Expedition and he served as the Biologist in charge of field operations on the first United States Fish and Wildlife Service Alaska King Crab Investigation in 1940. During 1941 and 1942, Schmitt spent time on special detail with the United States Navy investigating the possibility of establishing a biological station in the Galapagos Islands. In 1943, he visited South America, under the auspices of the State Department, for the purpose of strengthening relations between United States and Latin American scientists.
In 1955, the Smithsonian Institution began an association with J. Bruce Bredin of Wilmington, Delaware, that produced several scientific expeditions. In that year, Schmitt headed the Smithsonian-Bredin Belgian Congo Expedition. From 1956 to 1960, Schmitt led Bredin sponsored expeditions to the Caribbean (1956, 1958, 1959), the Society Islands (1957), and the Yucatan (1960). Sponsored by a grant from the Office of Naval Research, Schmitt spent the summers of 1961 and 1962 with Harry Pederson photographing the coral reef fauna of the Bahama Islands. Schmitt's last expedition was in 1962-1963, when he served as a member of the Palmer Peninsula (Antarctica) Survey of the United States Antarctic Research Program. During the survey, Schmitt collected over 29,000 specimens, which were added to the collections of the National Museum of Natural History. In recognition of his contributions to the United States Antarctic Research Program, the Board of Geographic Names designated a 30 mile ice-covered series of outcrops at the base of the Antarctic Peninsula, Schmitt Mesa.
Schmitt's primary field of zoological investigation was carcinology, with special emphasis on the decapod crustaceans (the order that includes crabs, lobsters, and shrimp). His bibliography consists of more than seventy titles. A member of numerous professional organizations, Schmitt was active in the founding of the Society of Systematic Zoology and served as president in 1948. He was also president of the Washington Academy of Sciences in 1947. Schmitt was a trustee of the Bear's Bluff Laboratories, the International Oceanographic Foundation, and the Serological Museum of Rutgers University.
For additional biographical information on Waldo LaSalle Schmitt, see Richard E. Blackwelder, The Zest for Life, or Waldo Had a Pretty Good Run: The Life of Waldo LaSalle Schmitt (Lawrence, Kansas: The Allen Press, Inc., 1979); Fenner A. Chace, Jr., "Waldo LaSalle Schmitt, 25 June 1887 - 5 August 1977," Crustaceana, 1978, vol. 34, pt. 1, pp. 83-90; and John Sherwood, "Uncle Waldo Still Hears the Call of Crustaceans," The Washington Star, January 11, 1977.