Ichthyology has been studied at Harvard since long before the founding of the Museum of Comparative Zoology by Louis Agassiz in 1859. By the late 1700s, William Dandridge Peck, the first professor of Natural History at Harvard, had collected and published on New England fishes. Peck's specimens were skinned, dried and glued to paper sheets; some are still in the MCZ collection to this day.
After the MCZ was founded by Louis Agassiz, the fish collection grew rapidly and has had a long history of active ichthyological research.
The following two images are examples of the preservation method employed by William Dandridge Peck (1763-1822) for his fishes. Each specimen was split in half, skinned, and pressed onto a sheet of paper.
Many of the types date back to the "Agassiz Period" (1859-1874) when fishes were sent from all over the world by hundreds of individuals and from two major expeditions, the Thayer Expedition to Brazil and the Hassler Expedition that circumnavigated South America. Other important accessions involving type material gathered during the Agassiz Period include: Nicholas Pike fishes from Mauritius; Andrew Garrett fishes from the South Pacific; types of Eastern European and Central Asian fishes from the Imperial Museum of St. Petersburg; almost all of Felipe Poey's types of Cuban Fishes; Indian freshwater fishes from Rev. M.M. Carleton and Sir Francis Day; and representatives of Klunzinger's fishes from the Red Sea.
In the subsequent period which can be designated as the "Garman Period" (1874-1928), an extensive program of exchanges was established with the emphasis on the acquisition of type specimens and fishes not represented in the collection. Important accessions of this period include: world-wide elasmobranchs; deep-sea fishes from the steamers BLAKE and ALBATROSS; fishes from Lake Titicaca (Garman and Agassiz); types of Chinese fishes from the Lyons Museum; selected material from the "Talisman" and "Travailleur" expeditions; and Eigenmann's British Guiana fishes, including many types. Other addition from this period are fishes from Japan (S. Tanaka), East Africa (Loveridge) and Central China (J.E. Thayer).
After the Garman Period and until 1974, the fish collection underwent selective and limited growth. The more important additions during this period include: East African freshwater fishes (Loveridge); Cameroonian freshwater fishes (Schwab); deep-sea fishes from the western North Atlantic (Iselin) and from off Cuba (Harvard-Havana Expedition); Great Barrier Reef fishes (Barton); Gulf of Mexico Fishes (OREGON); Atlantic Slope fishes (W.C. Schroeder); Panamanian Marine Fishes (Mead and Rubinoff); Indian Ocean and eastern South Pacific mid-water fishes (RV ANTON BRUUN Cr. 3, 6 & 13); freshwater fishes from Brazil and Ecuador (Roberts); freshwater fishes from west and central Africa (Roberts); freshwater fishes of Thailand (Roberts); freshwater fishes of Zaire (Roberts and Stewart); and fishes from Lake Tanganyika (Stewart) and Lake Malawi (Eccles).
Since 1974, New England freshwater fishes (Hartel & EMAP Program), shelf and slope fishes from off New England (Hartel, WHOI, & NMFS), and Arabian sea fishes (R/V Malcom Baldridge , Hartel) were been added. The most important accession during this period was the transfer of the meso-pelagic material from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution which more than doubled the size of the MCZ collection. Under the direction of Dr. K.F. Liem and the efforts of K.E. Hartel, the number of specimens in the MCZ fish collection more than quadrupled in size between 1973 and 2007.
Today, the Ichthyological Collection remains one of the best in the world and emphasis is placed on teaching with very active undergraduate and graduate student research programs. The fish collection has been fully renovated and its holdings are available for search on the web.