Nestled in the top right corner of an ichthyology display in the Academy of Natural Sciences’ 200th anniversary exhibit is a jar containing a fish with some literary distinction: It was caught by Ernest Hemingway.
But nothing marks the albacore tuna, or Thunnus alalunga, as any different from the specimens surrounding it. Compared to the “Freshwater Vampire Fish Skull” below it, it’s downright nondescript — without staff help, it would have been incredibly difficult to find the fish at all. Hemingway is mentioned only in the small print of a diagram accompanying the display, and there, only parenthetically.
The no-frills presentation makes sense given its provenance, though, and not just because of Hemingway’s writing style. When Academy managing director Charles M.B. Cadwalader wrote Hemingway, an Academy member, in 1934 to ask for help with ichthyology research, he wasn’t writing to the literary celebrity. Hemingway was a skilled fisherman familiar with the Gulf Stream, which contained the large game fish the Academy was looking to categorize — particularly marlins.
Hemingway hosted Cadwalader and head ichthyologist Henry Fowler on his beloved boat Pilar that summer (hauling in a 12-foot marlin in their presence) and sent specimens like Thunnus alalunga to the Academy for a year after. Later, Fowler was able to revise the taxonomy of North Atlantic marlins, and named a scorpionfish Neomerinthe hemingwayi.
But fishing was, to Hemingway, a private affair. As he famously wrote in a newspaper piece, “Somebody just back of you while you are fishing is as bad as someone looking over your shoulder while you write a letter to your girl.” The tuna’s quiet, unobtrusive presence — placed, as it is, significantly above eye level — seems appropriate. Forget looking over his shoulder; you’ll have to crane your neck just to catch a glimpse.
Thunnus alalunga | “The Academy at 200,” through March 31, Academy of Natural Sciences, 1900 Ben Franklin Parkway, 215-299-1000, ansp.org.