Website updated 07/11/2023

A Brief History of the Sector of Herpetology, National Museum

The idea of creating a natural history museum in Brazil took shape in the government of Viceroy Dom Luiz de Vasconcelos (1779-1890), with the foundation of the "House of Natural History" or "House of Birds". This House had a short existence, being closed in 1810.

The biggest influence on the official establishing of a natural history museum in Brazil, however, was the arrival of the Archduchess Leopoldina of Habsburg, sister of the Emperor Francis I of Austria. She later became Empress of Brazil because of her wedding in 1817 with Dom Pedro, son of King Joao VI and heir to the throne of Portugal, Brazil and Algarves. The Empress Leopoldina loved natural sciences, and so she stimulated the interest in scientific research, encouraging many European scientists to travel to Brazil.

By a Charter, signed on the 6th June 1818 by King Joao VI, the Royal Museum was created, later called the Imperial Museum or the National Museum, when Brazil's independence was proclaimed, in 1822. The last name, National Museum, was held after the advent of the Republic in 1889.

Initially, the Museum was installed in a house in the city centre of Rio de Janeiro. After the Republican Constituent Assembly, it was transferred to the Palace of the Quinta da Boa Vista, where it is still located.

The Palace of the Quinta da Boa Vista was built by the Jesuits and acquired by Elias Antonio Lopes, a wealthy Portuguese merchant. He offered it to King Joao VI in 1808, in exchange for a title of nobility. From that date until 1889, the Palace was the residence of King Joao VI and the Emperors Dom Pedro I and Dom Pedro II, being the centre of power in Brazil in the nineteenth-century. In 1889, the Palace housed the first Republican Constituent Assembly, and on 25th July 1892, it housed the National Museum.

As a public institution, in its long existence, the running of the National Museum came under the influence of a number of government agencies such as the Ministries of Justice, Agriculture and Education. Between the years 1930 to 1941 it belonged to the University of Brazil but returned to the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Education and Health from 1941 to 1945. By a Presidential Decree dated 16 January 1945, the National Museum was incorporated and, by a Decree of 18 July 1946, it was integrated into the University of Brazil, now the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, as an Institute of Research.

The scientific collections of the National Museum have their origin, therefore, in the nineteenth century. Important collections were assembled during this time, often in a somewhat disorderly way, but they became the most important collections of Natural History in Latin America. These collections embrace an abundant quantity of type specimens and represent the historical and scientific record of the neotropical biodiversity, mainly of Brazil.

Amongst the illustrious herpetologists who worked at the National Museum were João Batista de Lacerda, Alipio de Miranda Ribeiro, Bertha Lutz and Antenor Leitão de Carvalho. The latter remained responsible for herpetological collections until his retirement in 1980. Soon after, for health reasons that would lead to his death in 1985, he moved away almost entirely from the National Museum. The Collection Adolpho Lutz was incorporated into the National Museum in 1968 through the efforts of Bertha Lutz, who died in 1976.

Following De Carvalho’s retirement, no-one was given responsibility for the collections. Only maintenance works were carried out, with very little introduction of new materials, except for some holotypes and paratypes of species described more recently. The additional material which was received was stored, without any record of input in the collection or classification. Thus, when Ulysses Caramaschi took office in late 1984, the collections were completely disorganised.

Currently, the Sector of Herpetology has four teachers/curators (Prof. Titular Ulysses Caramaschi, Associate Prof. José P. Pombal Jr., Associate Prof. Ronaldo Fernandes and Adjunct Prof. Paulo Passos), two Collection managers (Msc. Pedro Henrique M.S. Pinna and Dra. Manoela Woitovicz Cardoso) and a Technician (Dr. Marcelo Soares). Also actively working in the Sector of Herpetology, are an Overseas Visiting Prof. (Dr. Bryan Jennings). The teachers of the Sector are also advisors at the Postgraduate Program in Zoology at the National Museum. Therefore, there are a large number of postgraduate students that focus their research on herpetological subjects.


The Sector of Herpetology is located at the pavilion of the Department of Vertebrate inside the Botanical Garden of the National Museum, which is located at the Quinta da Boa Vista.

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Lacerda, João Batista de (1846-1915)

Born on July 12th, 1846 in the city of Campos dos Goytacazes, Rio de Janeiro, Lacerda was an illustrious Brazilian physician and scientist. Graduated from the Faculty of Medicine of Rio de Janeiro, he practiced in his hometown when he was appointed Deputy Director of the Section of Anthropology, Zoology and Palaeontology at the National Museum. Later, he was elected Director of the newly created Laboratory of Experimental Physiology of the National Museum, which he helped organize. At that time, Lacerda did pioneering studies on curare and poisons of ophidians and amphibians. He discovered the neutralizing action of Potassium Permanganate on snakes’ venom, doing a type description of the specie Bothrops jararacussu. He also dedicated himself to the study of microbiology and yellow fever. Lacerda was named director of the National Museum (from 1895 to1915) and president of the National Academy of Medicine. He also published studies on Brazilian fossil hominids, being awarded the bronze medal of the Anthropological Exhibit of Paris.

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Miranda Ribeiro, Alípio de (1874-1939)

Born on February 21st, 1874 in the city of Rio Preto, Minas Gerais, Miranda Ribeiro was one of the most prolific and influential zoologists of his time. He showed inclination towards the natural sciences from the age of 14. After finishing his primary studies, he moved to Rio de Janeiro to attend high school. He joined the School of Medicine of Rio de Janeiro and concurrently he began to work as a preparer at the National Museum in 1894, when he was 20 years old. In 1899 he became Secretary of the Museum and later, after several promotions, he was appointed Professor and Head of the Department of Zoology (created in 1929). He held this post until his death on January 8th, 1939. Between 1908-1909 Miranda Ribeiro was a zoologist at the Strategic Telegraph Commission from Mato Grosso to Amazonas, the famous Rondon Commission. In 1912, he was appointed Fisheries Inspector. Although he is recognized as the most important South American ichthyologist of his time, Miranda Ribeiro published extensively about all groups of vertebrates. His broader herpetological study, entitled "Notas para Servirem ao Estudo dos Gymnobatrachios (Anura) brasileiros", was published in 1926 and is still an obligatory reference for studies of Brazilian Anuran Amphibians [modified from Adler, 1989 and Pombal, 2002].

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Lutz, Bertha (1894-1976)

Bertha Maria Julia Lutz was an illustrious Brazilian naturalist and feminist. Born on August 2nd, 1894 in the city of São Paulo, Brazil, she was the daughter of the also illustrious Brazilian zoologist and physician Adolpho Lutz. Her interest in amphibians dated from her childhood, when she made her first collection trips with her father, although her formal education in herpetology started only after the age of forty. She studied Natural Sciences at the University of Sorbonne in France and then Law at the University of Brazil (currently the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro), motivating and preparing her to provide legal assistance to the feminist movement. In 1922 she co-founded the women's rights movement in Brazil, which led her to join a committee that drafted the new Brazilian Constitution in 1932, which ultimately resulted in women's suffrage in 1933. Bertha Lutz entered the National Museum, where she became Head of the now Department of Natural History; she became, also, an Emeritus Professor at the UFRJ. Despite her formal occupation as a naturalist, she continued to play an important role in the national and international political scene, participating as a Brazilian representative at the meeting that founded the United Nations in 1945 and, when she was 80 years old, at the Inter-American Commission of Women's rights. She began her herpetological studies with the aim of assisting her father, who lost his sight towards the end of his fruitful life, publishing with him her first articles about anurans amphibians (1938-1939). After the death of her father in 1940, she kept working actively with amphibians, especially the family Hylidae, which resulted in a series of working papers focusing on the taxonomy, systematics, natural history, development and behavior of hylid. Her work entitled "Brazilian Species of Hyla", published in 1973, became a classic study, being an obligatory reference point for the study of Brazilian frogs [modified from Adler, 1989].

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Carvalho, Antenor Leitão de (1910-1985)

Born on April 15th, 1910 in Barreira do Piquete, 180 km northwest of the city of São Paulo, Carvalho was an eminent and self-taught Brazilian herpetologist and ichthyologist. After completing his secondary education in his hometown, he worked as a pilot for a merchant vessel between 1927-1932. When his ship was docked in Rio de Janeiro, he visited the National Museum, and became fascinated with its collections, offering himself as a volunteer. In 1933 he joined as a Technician Scientist and Collector at the National Museum, working directly with Alípio de Miranda-Ribeiro (Senior Zoologist at the National Museum), who by this time was working on amphibians. Carvalho developed similar interest in the study of amphibians and soon organized a major collecting expedition to northeastern Brazil. Miranda-Ribeiro considered Carvalho as his natural successor as Curator of Herpetology. However, after Miranda-Ribeiro’s death in 1939, Carvalho needed to compete with other researchers for the position, and was appointed in mid-1941. In 1947 Carvalho was awarded a fellowship by the Guggenheim Foundation to conduct his works in the U.S., but the Brazilian government only allowed his leave of absence in 1951. He then spent two years working in collaboration with Georges Myers at Stanford University in California. Myers was an ichthyologist and herpetologist who had collected extensively in Brazil between 1942-1944. He became the second mentor to Carvalho. This two-year period in the U.S. under the tutelage of Myers, was the only formal training he ever had. Carvalho also collaborated extensively with Joseph Bailey, a snake expert at Duke University in North Carolina (1940-1954). After 1957, he held various administrative positions such as Head of Department of Zoology, later Head of the newly created Department of Vertebrate and finally Deputy Director of the National Museum. Between 1975-1979, along with Eugenio Izecksohn, he collaborated with the postgraduate course at the National Museum, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, retiring in 1979. He died in Rio de Janeiro in 1985 [modified from Adler, 2007].

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