Despite the burdens of his position, Chamberlain produced more than sixty scientific publications, mostly on birds but also on amphibians, reptiles, and mammals. His most important contribution was South Carolina Bird Life, written with [Alexander] Sprunt.
Ornithologist, herpetologist, museum curator. Born in Charleston on March 19, 1895, Chamberlain was a son of Norman Allison Chamberlain and Emmie Julia Davis. He grew up in and attended high school in Charleston. On June 18, 1918, he married Margaret McKee Sanders. The couple had two sons.
At an early age, Chamberlain and his twin brother, Rhett, began to spend time at the Charleston Museum, and in 1908 Burnham donated a palm warbler and two nests of the marsh wren to its collections. These were the first of many specimens that Chamberlain would contribute during more than sixty years of careful study of South Carolina natural history. About 1909 the Chamberlain twins met Arthur T. Wayne, the foremost ornithologist in the state, who taught them much about birds and the preparation of bird skins.
In 1916 President Woodrow Wilson sent soldiers under General John J. Pershing to the Mexican border to stop the raids of Pancho Villa. Among Pershing’s forces were the Charleston Light Dragoons, with Burnham and Rhett Chamberlain as two of its members. The Chamberlains took advantage of the military posting to explore the semidesert habitat. The Dragoons went overseas during World War I, but Burnham Chamberlain earlier had left the unit to attend Officer’s Training Camp. He was appointed second lieutenant in August 1917 and promoted to first lieutenant a year later.
Returning to civilian life, Chamberlain worked for a time with the Standard Oil Company, but his love of natural history was irresistible. In 1924, after a one-year internship at the U.S. National Museum (Smithsonian Institution), he became head of the preparation department at the Charleston Museum. Along with Alexander Sprunt, Jr., a part-time employee of the museum, Chamberlain made a special effort to build the bird-skin collection and also worked to enlarge the collections of amphibians, reptiles, and mammals. Eventually he became a curator with broad duties that included preparation of exhibits, public instruction, and the collection, preparation, and maintenance of specimens. In 1938, supported by a grant from the Carnegie Foundation, Chamberlain visited many major museums in Britain and the European continent to study techniques of exhibiting and methods of preparation.
During World War II and immediately afterward, Chamberlain was saddled with many extra duties, including curatorship of the collections of firearms and edged weapons and maintenance of the building. These additional assignments, along with his regular work as curator of vertebrate zoology, led to serious deterioration of his health. He retired in 1952. Despite the burdens of his position, Chamberlain produced more than sixty scientific publications, mostly on birds but also on amphibians, reptiles, and mammals. His most important contribution was South Carolina Bird Life, written with Sprunt. In later years, with his health improved, Chamberlain provided assistance to the museum in various matters, particularly curatorship. He died in Charleston on May 7, 1986, and was buried in Magnolia Cemetery.
Sanders, Albert E., and William D. Anderson, Jr. Natural History Investigations in South Carolina from Colonial Times to the Present. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1999.
Sprunt, Alexander, Jr., and E. Burnham Chamberlain. South Carolina Bird Life. Rev. ed. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1970.