By Robert Peck
This article is condensed and reproduced by permission of the ANSP from www.ansp.org.
The Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia (now the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University) was founded in 1812 “for the encouragement and cultivation of the sciences, and the advancement of useful learning.” The unique aspect of this statement of purpose lies in the word “useful,” a mandate the Academy has continuously redefined through research and education that reflects the societal needs of the times.
The Academy’s history mirrors the evolution of the relationship between the American people and the natural world. The oldest natural sciences institution in the Western Hemisphere, the Academy was founded when the United States hugged the Atlantic coastline, and Philadelphia was the cultural, commercial, and scientific centre of the new nation. Classic expeditions to explore the western wilderness, such as those led by Stephen Long and Ferdinand Hayden, were closely associated with the Academy. These explorers brought back new species of plants and animals, which were studied and catalogued; they formed the foundation of the Academy’s scientific collections which now contain over seventeen million specimens.
The Academy opened its doors to the public in 1828. Here, the mysteries of nature were revealed, its chaos organized and labelled in Latin and Greek. The collections expanded so rapidly-through gifts, purchases, and exchanges as well as expeditions—that the Academy outgrew its building three times in sixty years. In 1876, its present home was built at 19th and Benjamin Franklin Parkway—then the outskirts of town, and now the heart of Philadelphia’s cultural district. With the opening of the new building, the Academy became a modern museum with areas for exhibitions and public lectures.
By the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century, Academy expeditions were ranging farther afield, to the Arctic, to Central America, and later to Africa and Asia. Plants and animals collected during these excursions were incorporated into the Academy’s magnificent dioramas, many of which were constructed in the 1920s and ’30s. To capitalize on the educational potential of the dioramas, the Academy initiated classes for students in the School District of Philadelphia in 1932. In 1948, long before water pollution and environmental degradation became topics of public concern, the Academy established the Environmental Research Division. This marked the beginning of a broadened research orientation for the Academy, which included applied research in aquatic ecosystems as well as the traditional systematics research–discovering and cataloguing organisms.
Among the Academy’s most famous early members were Thomas Say, the father of American entomology and conchology, Alexander Wilson, the father of American ornithology, and William Bartram, one of America’s earliest botanists. Another distinguished early member was Thomas Jefferson, celebrated for his political career, but less well known as a scientist. Jefferson was in fact a central player in the beginnings of American palaeontology, at a time when people were struggling with the ideas of fossils as evidence of past life, of extinction, and of an Earth far older than the Biblical account. Some of the fruits of Jefferson’s palaeontology became part of the collections at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia. Beginning in 1849 these holdings were transferred to the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, where they are currently housed. This is the Thomas Jefferson Fossil Collection.
Another important historical collection with Jeffersonian associations that is cared for by the Academy is the Lewis and Clark herbarium, made up of several hundred of the plants collected by the two explorers on their epic cross-country journey of 1804-1806.
One of the Academy’s most prized holdings is an original subscription copy of John James Audubon’s famous book The Birds of America. Published from 1827–1838, this monumental work is arguably the most influential book on birds ever created. It contains 435 life-sized hand-colored engravings bound into five volumes. Less than half of the 200 original sets of the “double elephant folio” survive, of which this is one. To celebrate this magnificent book – and Audubon’s association with the Academy, where he was elected a corresponding member in 1831 – an ‘Audubon page turning’ ritual has emerged. At 3.15 every week day, a member of the library staff turns a page of The Birds of America, and museum visitors are invited to see the next picture and ask any questions they may have.
Joseph Leidy (1823-1891), who helped to build the Academy’s palaeontology department in the nineteenth century and whose statue stands in front of the museum, gives perhaps the fullest sense of what science, and men of science, were like in America’s past. Leidy was an encyclopedist of the natural world and – in the words of his biographer Leonard Warren – “the last man who knew everything.” Unlike the narrow experts who now make up the scientific profession, Leidy was an amateur polymath of nature; his knowledge spread (and was solicited) far and wide. He was known as the “Father of American Vertebrate Paleontology”, but besides this he was also a pioneering anatomist, parasitologist, protozoologist and natural historian. An enthusiastic supporter of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, it was Leidy who saw to it that Darwin was elected to corresponding membership in the Academy in 1860 – the first American institution to so honour him following his publication of On the Origin of Species.
Today, the Academy is a world leader in biodiversity and environmental research, a focus that is reflected in its research, its education and its outreach work. Its permanent exhibits of contemporary science include butterflies, dinosaurs, dioramas, and a live animal centre. And for those who are curious about the history of science, but cannot visit in person, the Academy’s website hosts some excellent interactive collections, including Audubon’s daily page turning, Leidy’s works, and Jefferson’s fossils.
Robert McCracken Peck and Patricia Tyson Stroud, A Glorious Enterprise: The Academy of Natural sciences of Philadelphia and the Making of American Science (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012)