The Show-Room and the Workshop: The Laboratory within the Natural History Museum and the Development of American Biology, 1850-1935

Jenna Tonn Harvard University 2012-2013 Dissertation Research Fellow
The Show-Room and the Workshop: The Laboratory within the Natural History Museum and the Development of American Biology, 1850-1935 Thanks to the generosity of a Dissertation Research Fellowship from the Philadelphia Area Center for the History of Science, I spent the month of October living and conducting research in Philadelphia. My dissertation examines the development of laboratory spaces within American natural history museums, namely the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University and the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Because Philadelphia was an early center for scientific investigation in the United States, its natural history institutions and their collections were considered important models for naturalists at Harvard and at the Smithsonian. While in Philadelphia, I examined a range of archival materials related to the history of constructing natural history laboratories at the Wagner Free Institute for Science, the Academy of Natural Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society. I visited the Wagner Free Institute for Science’s archives to better understand how its natural history research and exhibition spaces were designed and constructed after Joseph Leidy took up his position as the director of academic programs in 1885. The Wagner Institute’s archives contain a rich set of material related to both its own history as a scientific institution and the ways in which nineteenth century men of science understood the purpose of natural history collecting, research, and education. As seen in Leidy’s correspondence with Samuel Wagner, for instance, Leidy believed that along with the Wagner Institute’s popular courses in science, its natural history collections, if properly displayed, would uniquely advance the field of biology. Rather than exhibiting natural history specimens using the older “cabinet of curiosity” style, Leidy reorganized the Wagner Institute’s collections so that the museum would function like a “well arranged text-book.” Along those lines, I was interested to find out that in 1887 Leidy wrote to Wagner that the Wagner Institute ought to use the Museum of Comparative Zoology’s “Synoptical Collection” as a model for arranging its own specimens for display. One of the most notable aspects of the Wagner Institute is that to this day it is a well-preserved museum of a nineteenth-century museum. It was a remarkable experience to be able to sit in the archives and read about Leidy’s reorganization of the museum collections and then to walk upstairs to see it myself. In the Academy of Natural Sciences archives, I examined material related to the construction of its 1876 natural history museum on Race Street as well as its curators’ reports detailing the day-to-day activities of the society and its members. The Academy of Natural Sciences was one of the first scientific institutions founded in the United States and played an important role in the professional lives of many nineteenth-century naturalists. In the curators’ minutes, I found the deliberations about applications for conducting research in the Academy’s collections submitted by several of my historical actors. In the Academy’s building and construction records, it was fascinating to read about the ways in which a nineteenth-century scientific society used the spatial constraints related to the display of systematic collections to garner support for its new museum building. While the Wagner Institute was committed to free public education in science from its founding in 1855, the Academy of Natural Sciences limited the access to its collections to its members. As a result, comparing the histories of these two Philadelphia area institutions in terms of their building efforts in the 1870s and 1880s has been particularly revealing. At the American Philosophical Society, I was interested in examining the papers of prominent American zoologists and biologists from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who were educated, conducted research, and taught in the Zoological Laboratory at Harvard. The Charles B. Davenport papers, for instance, included Davenport’s notes from his coursework as a doctoral student at Harvard as well as handwritten outlines of zoological lectures that he gave as a young professor. Moreover, correspondence in the Davenport papers as well as in the Herbert Spencer Jennings papers and those of William E. Castle, Henry B. Ward, L.C. Dunn, and Leonard Carmichael offered a range of fascinating personal and professional details about the social and scientific cultures that emerged at Harvard between 1885 and 1930. Perhaps most surprising and useful was a handful of correspondence penned by the first and second generations of Harvard educated zoologists detailing the changing nature of biology teaching and research in the 1880s and 1890s in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I am incredibly appreciative to the Philadelphia Area Center for the History of Science for the opportunity to focus exclusively on my dissertation research for a month in Philadelphia. The archival material related to museum design and construction at the Wagner Institute and the Academy of Natural Society enriched my understanding of the historical, scientific, and architectural contexts in which the Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology and the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History were established. Moreover, examining collections at the American Philosophical Society opened up new avenues of research in my dissertation chapters related to the community of Harvard biologists working in the Zoological Laboratory at the turn of the century. Along with the research opportunities in Philadelphia, it was a pleasure to meet the scholars and program administrators affiliated with PACHS and to attend a number of history of science related events in the city.