Popular Science Monthly/Volume 16/March 1880/Ward's Natural Science Establishment

620654Popular Science Monthly Volume 16 March 1880 — Ward's Natural Science Establishment1880Joseph Leidy


By Professor JOSEPH LEIDY.

A RECENT visit to Professor Henry A. Ward's "Natural Science Establishment" at Rochester, New York, led the writer to some reflections on the comparative value of a knowledge of natural history. In the prevailing systems of education, the subject is totally disregarded, or receives but trifling consideration. The classical languages and history, on the other hand, have always been taught, and are yet considered by the greater portion of the cultivated people as essential to a complete education, while the sciences have been treated as only of secondary importance. The information possessed by a country boy, gained by intelligent observation, of the birds or plants of his neighborhood, is viewed by the so-called educated community as insignificant in comparison with that of the college boy who can relate stories, from classical history, of persons who never existed and events that never occurred.

Considering the circumstance that all things, except what we make of them, are natural objects, it would seem that the first and main efforts of education, after acquiring sufficient language and arithmetic to express our ideas of qualities and numbers, would be to learn what the objects are. The child on learning to speak at once begins to ask about the things it sees, but unfortunately too often the parent and teacher are incapable of giving the desired information, and ordinarily it meets with so little satisfaction that finally the spirit of inquiry disappears. For most persons, after distinguishing the ordinary articles pertaining to the necessities and conveniences of life, the crudest generalities of knowledge appear to be sufficient. With them it seems to be enough to know that things are stones, metals, and dirt; weeds, flowers, and trees; bugs, animals, and men. Among the cultivated, one is considered the no less educated if he calls a worm a snake, or a caterpillar a nasty reptile; while he may run the risk of being called ignorant, or at least uneducated, if he can not translate a Latin text. Though quartz is the most abundant mineral substance of the land in which we live, yet perhaps not one in a hundred of an educated community knows a quartz-pebble from any other.

To the writer the sciences, including natural history, have appeared to be of the utmost importance to the welfare and happiness of mankind, and no other branches of knowledge can equal them in these relations.

To facilitate the study and to create a more general interest in natural history, museums of characteristic specimens should not only be connected with every college and other educational institutions, but there should be established in every considerable town a free public museum—not a mere show or place of amusement, a collection of curiosities and rare specimens, queer things, a two-headed calf, or a dried hand of a murderer, but a series of specimens, often of familiar objects, illustrative of the classes, orders, and other chief divisions of the mineral, vegetal, and animal kingdoms, together with those which illustrate geology and kindred subjects. A museum of this kind should further be supplied with specimens of all the natural productions of the vicinity, which may be collected from time to time by those who are, or may become, most interested in the study of natural history. Such a museum would not only be of the greatest service as a means of instruction, but would prove useful in a variety of ways to the community, and would also give additional interest to the visits of strangers to the locality.

Professor Ward's great establishment is intended to supply a complete series of illustrative specimens in all the departments of natural history for educational museums. The writer had repeatedly seen and admired collections of specimens from this establishment in colleges and other institutions, but it was only recently that he was induced to visit the former itself. It greatly exceeded his expectations, and surprised him by its extent as well as delighted him from the excellence and beauty of its collections. Many buildings were stored with admirably mounted and well-preserved vertebrates, snowy-white skeletons, a multitude of invertebrates, excellent models, fine collections of minerals, and characteristic series of rocks and fossils. Even in the great capitals of Europe nowhere did the writer see so great and excellent a stock from which to furnish museums; and it is in grateful appreciation of the able and zealous services of Professor Ward, in the interest of natural history, that the writer takes this opportunity of recommending his establishment to those who desire to obtain collections. In conclusion, to exemplify how much may be taught of whole groups or orders from a few specimens, the writer presents the following instance: He had in his possession a fragment of red coral, the material so much used for ornament. Notwithstanding much explanation, persons ordinarily appeared to him to be incredulous as to its animal nature. In viewing Professor Ward's collections, he espied among thousands of actual specimens a pair of beautiful models of the red coral, one representing the object of natural size covered with the soft flesh and exhibiting the tiny polyps; the other representing a magnified view, exhibiting a fragment of a stem with three polyps. These were purchased for one dollar each, and are now placed together with the natural coral fragment, and not only tell the whole story of the animal at a glance, but tell that of the whole order to which it belongs. Many such examples might be related, but one is enough.

It is this careful attention of Professor Ward to the scientific and educational import of his collections which has given his natural history establishment its high appreciation among the naturalists and the science teachers of our country.