Cultures of Collection in Late Nineteenth Century Natural History

Matthew Laubacher Arizona State University My dissertation “Cultures of Collection in Late Nineteenth Century Natural History” examines the relationship between understandings of evolutionary theory and systematics and actual practice in natural history. I focused my efforts in examining the archives at three Philadelphia area scientific institutions; the American Philosophical Society (APS), the Academy of Natural Sciences (ANSP) and the Wagner Free Institute of Science (WFIS).While the ANSP and the WFIS were focusing on the life sciences (and ever more on paleontology due to Leidy, Cope and Heilprin), members of the APS focused their efforts more on the physical sciences, though this would change with the advent of genetics in the early twentieth century. In examining the role of collection in the development of new biological knowledge, my research has therefore focused on the ANSP and the WFIS, though the archives of the APS were still examined. At mid-century, Joseph Leidy at the Academy of Natural Sciences was America’s foremost authority on vertebrate paleontology, and with Louis Agassiz, the leading zoologist in the country. Leidy therefore had a prime position in American science, at a time when both natural history and the borders of the country were expanding. Leidy assumed a role very similar to that of Asa Gray at Harvard, in which he was responsible for identifying fauna (whereas Gray was responsible for flora) that was discovered as Army surveys and then population moved west. As such, many people would send interesting items to Leidy, which would sometimes result in long running correspondences, like the one that Leidy developed with Drs. J. Van Allen Carter and Joseph Corson, of Fort Bridger, as well as the symbiotic relationship developed by F.V. Hayden and Leidy prior to the Civil War. However, this more traditional correspondence/collection network was displaced by the coming of biological expeditions in the late nineteenth century. While Leidy was an advocate of these expeditions, he left Philadelphia only rarely to collect for himself. He was joined at the Academy of Natural Sciences by E.D. Cope, and later Angelo Heilprin, however, both of whom would become active in leading expeditions to study all aspects of natural history. Under the guidance of Leidy and Heilprin (and being dragged along by Cope) the Academy became a leader in expeditionary biology, with ANSP fellow Robert Peck identifying over twenty separate expeditions in a forty-year period from the late 1860s to the early twentieth century (ANSP Proceedings v. 150 p. 15-46). When Leidy became director of the Wagner Institute of Free Science in 1885, he brought Heilprin and the expeditionary ideal to an institution deeply mired in late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century natural history. In addition to jump-starting expeditionary biology at the Wagner Institute, with five substantial expeditions in the decade after Leidy’s arrival, Heilprin and Leidy sought to remake the Institute into a zoological research museum such as the Smithsonian’s National Museum and the Comparative Museum of Zoology at Harvard. Given William Wagner’s propensity for collecting objects that exemplified natural beauty (as did many other early nineteenth century amateur naturalists) Heilprin and Leidy were left with a collection that was over represented in conchology, and with a museum that had little room for new collections from the field; indeed, many of Heilprin’s letters to Leidy and others at the Institute have to do with the display of specimens, as well as the headache of transforming an oversized cabinet of curiosities into a fully systematic research collection. The minutes of the ANSP, post Darwin, are filled with discussions on the evolution of organisms, geographic ranges, and the importance of dating geologic strata. Systematics, then, played a pivotal role in science as practiced at the Academy in the late nineteenth century, and was incorporated into practice at the Wagner Free Institute when Leidy arrived in 1885. Unfortunately, even with the emphasis on expeditionary biology by the leaders of Philadelphia biology (Heilprin led five expeditions from 1886-1902; Leidy informally collected in the Ft. Bridger region in the early 1870s, and Cope was constantly in the West, although not officially doing surveys for the ANSP) the records from these trips were primarily published after the fact, in the journal of the sponsoring institution. Likewise, in both the minutes of the Wagner Free Institute and the Academy of Natural Sciences, the expeditions do not appear until during the expedition itself or afterward, when members such as Heilprin and Joseph Willcox would report on their findings. Therefore, the actual role of collectors and survey workers as well as the epistemological practices used on the survey can only be surmised, given the understandings of those that led the expedition. Heilprin in particular was a prolific writer, and it is clear that his understanding of natural history is based on an understanding of evolutionary systematics (he was a student of Thomas Huxley’s for a time in England, after all), but it is not clear what the role that this theoretical background played in his practice in the field since there is not documentary evidence available to piece that together, only what he later presented to the Academy and in print. There are however, established communications networks with Philadelphia’s leading naturalists: Drs. James Van Allen Carter and Joseph Corson, based at Ft. Bridger, initiated a correspondence with Joseph Leidy in the traditional way – finding something interesting and then sending it to a national scientific leader. This turned into a mutually beneficial relationship, leading to Leidy’s only trips out West as well as sparking interest in the Wyoming territory by both Marsh and Cope. It is possible that this relationship was initiated due to an earlier relationship between Leidy and Corson’s father, who lived in the Philadelphia area. As Ft. Bridger became the center of expeditionary paleontology in the 1870s, Carter would play a key role coordinating Marsh’s accounts, including the hiring of collectors. Even though he was actively involved in helping Marsh’s surveys (and disliking Cope with a passion), Carter felt his first loyalties lay with Leidy. In his letters to Leidy, he notes that while Marsh asked him for contributions, Carter insisted on sending Leidy any original finds, and only giving Marsh the duplicates. Furthermore, he was extremely disappointed when the Marsh (and Cope) teams worked in areas that he had already examined somewhat, and that he wanted to explore more deeply with Leidy when Leidy came out, once referring a specific fossil bed as “Ours” (meaning either Corson’s and Carter’s, or including Leidy as well). Indeed commenting on the territorial war that broke out between Cope, Marsh, (as well as Hayden), Carter argued that he viewed the true priority of intellectual territory with Leidy. His letters to Leidy on this subject are peppered with military jargon, referring to the “invasion” of collectors in the summer collecting season, even begging O.C. Marsh to leave his Yale students at home. This sense of intellectual ownership of a particular region was also practiced by F.V. Hayden in his earlier letters on collecting in the Judith River region of Nebraska territory (later day Montana). One important draw from the archives is the way in which these collection and correspondence networks start. For non-professionals interested in natural history, such as the Drs. Carter and Corson, as well as a very young F.V. Hayden, the first step in expanding their interest in Natural History was to write to a leading scientist such as Leidy. Thirty years later, Joseph Grinnell of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology in Berkeley acquired two of his top collectors in Joseph Dixon and Charles Camp in a similar fashion. Dixon knew Grinnell from the former’s days at Throop Polytechnic (now Cal Tech), and followed his mentor north to Berkeley, ultimately becoming an assistant curator at the Museum. Camp started his relationship with Grinnell by writing asking to volunteer on expeditions, and was rewarded with a summer job paying $25 a month. Camp continued to collect for three more seasons, and would become a leading biologist in his own right. As was mentioned above, the vast majority of time here in Philadelphia was spent at the Academy of Natural Sciences, for two main reasons. First, it was the Philadelphia leader in natural science and expeditionary science in the mid to late nineteenth century. Secondly, while the American Philosophical Society has collections of interest, especially the papers of O.C. Marsh and the field notebooks of E.D. Cope, these are microfilmed collections from Yale and the AMNH in New York respectively. However, in order for my research to further succeed, they must still be examined, either here in Philadelphia, or in their original locations. I will further examine the relationship of J. Van Allen Carter and Joseph Corson with both Marsh and Cope, as well as the way in which Cope and Marsh employed collectors such as Sam Smith, John Chew, Benjamin Mudge, and Charles Sternberg. Most investigators have focused their work on the competition between Marsh and Cope, and discussion on the surveys has been part of a larger narrative between the two rivals. The intellectual background of these surveys must be examined further examined to investigate the role of collectors on the development of scientific knowledge. As this current project involves an extraordinary amount of data mining, I have discovered interesting topics that I also hope to examine in the future. The APS has a small collection of Jonathan Couch, a nineteenth century British expert on local (British) fishes. He was also a dedicated antiquarian, constantly examining social issues in light of the great civilizations of the past, and advocated using the Bible as a historical work. As such, the proposed geology of an ancient stable Earth by Lyell and the development of evolutionary theory in Britain by Darwin and Wallace (and speculated upon earlier in the anonymous Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation) introduced a conundrum to his work. He pondered the subject of time frequently, often composing drafts of his thoughts on the backs of notes on fishes, and he uses an antiquarian tack in seeking to save the truth of the Bible with new developments in science. He noted that the term “Beginning” from the first chapter of Genesis does not necessarily refer to a specific instance in time, but can rather refer to a period of time, not just in Hebrew, but classic Greek and Babylonian as well. The question of time, as well as the antiquarian response to evolutionary theory in both Great Britain and the United States, would pose an interesting future study. I would like to convey my most sincere appreciation for the opportunity provided to me by PACHS, and especially to Bonnie Clause and Babak Ashrafi, as well as to research fellows Teddy Varno and Tina Kibbe for listening to my project and offering suggestions. I would also like to thank the excellent staff at each the PACHS centers visited, especially Clare Flemming and Eileen Mathias at the Academy of Natural Sciences, Lynn Dorwaldt at the Wagner Institute, and all of the wonderful staff at the American Philosophical Society. Without their help, my work here would have been impossible. More than anything else, this has been an excellent learning experience, and I look forward to continuing pursuing later research within these archives in the future.

Matthew Laubacher