Popular Science Monthly/Volume 20/February 1882/The Philadelphia Academy



IN a Canadian journal devoted to science there appeared, not long ago, an article entitled "The First and most Profound of Savants," and old Father Adam was intended by this superlative title, for did he not give to every animal a name? What a pity it is that these Adamitic appellatives have not descended to our day, since for years naturalists have been inflicting long Latin cognomens on all animals and plants coming under their observation, and it would almost seem as if the supply of names would be exhausted long before the things to be named!

Ever since the time of Adam men have enjoyed a contemplation of the created things which surround them, and have formed collections of minerals, plants, or animals, varying in size from the few "curios" on the mantel-piece of a back-country parlor to that most wonderful display contained in the British Museum. Our records of the museums of antiquity are very meager, and but little can be told concerning them. Noah's collection in the ark can hardly be considered in this connection, as it was formed with an entirely different end in view. Solomon possibly had a collection. The temple of the oracle at Delphos had many curiosities brought as votive offerings from foreign lands. Apollonius saw with surprise in India trees bearing the different kinds of nuts he had before seen in the temples of Greece. The museum at Alexandria contained the largest collection of books in antiquity, but whether it contained productions of nature is not known. Alexander the Great commanded all sailors and traders to bring the peculiar productions of the countries they visited to Aristotle; Apuleius made a collection of the fossils of the Gætulian Alps; while the Emperor Augustus had a large cabinet of curiosities from all parts of the then known world.

One reason why the ancients were deficient in museums was the lack of efficient methods of preserving the various forms of life: covering a body with wax or honey was not the best manner imaginable of rendering an object either interesting or instructive; and so it was that not until the discovery of alcohol and the manufacture of glass bottles that museums became of much importance. Another fact that also had much to do with the entire absence of any collection from the third until the sixteenth centuries was that all studies of nature were regarded as strongly savoring of infidelity, and were therefore to be discountenanced. So it was that not until the revival of letters were museums known in the Christian era.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries every prince of Europe felt it incumbent upon him to be a patron of learning, and, with the object of advancing the knowledge of nature, formed a cabinet in which were mingled in the most absurd manner Chinese mermaids, pebbles from the Holy Land, birds from the Orient, and coins from ancient Rome. Every prince also deemed it his duty to employ some scrivener to write, in that quality of Latin which has justly been styled "piggish," descriptions of the various curiosities thus brought together; and these lucubrations, embracing fact and fiction curiously mingled, were published with all sincerity in ponderous tomes illustrated with rude figures which, by a severe strain of the imagination, might be supposed to resemble something, but generally not the thing intended. But with the gradual intellectual development of the world these collections became more and more systematic and useful, and the resulting publications acquired a higher character, discarding fiction and old wives' tales, and presenting only facts acquired by observation. About the middle of the last century arose a man, Carl Linné (or Carolus Linnæus), abundantly blessed with the powers of generalization, who, by introducing system into the previous chaotic mass, placed the study of nature on a firm foundation; and from his time the progress of natural science has been astonishing. Naturalists immediately arose in all parts of the civilized globe, collectors were sent to those parts which were so unfortunate as not to be civilized, and soon almost every city in Europe boasted a museum.

America, however, was a young country, and, between its wars with the Indians and with England, its settlers had but little time to devote to study. An occasional naturalist from Europe landed on its shores to explore its wonders, and isolated persons made collections, which were duly forwarded to the Old World. It was not until some time after the Revolution that America possessed a single museum. Probably the first was Peale's Museum, in Philadelphia, which was established in the last century, and where might have been seen side by side a mastodon and a machine for producing perpetual motion. The Museum of the East India Marine Society, at Salem, Massachusetts, was begun but a few years later, and until a dozen years ago retained many of the characteristics of those comparatively primitive times.

Leaving these early museums, with their lack of system, the first which was strictly scientific was that of the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences, and to give a brief account of that institution is the object of the present paper.

Before the War of 1812 Philadelphia was the only city in the Union which could make the slightest pretensions to being a scientific center; the Bartons, Bartrams, and Muhlenberg, were enthusiastic botanists; William Maclure had just published his "Geology of the United States"; and Alexander Wilson had just begun his "American Ornithology," which was left unfinished at the author's death. During the year 1812 several young men occasionally met for the purpose of mutual amusement and instruction, and at one of these meetings the project of a scientific society was proposed, discussed, and finally (January 12, 1812) Drs. Gerard Troost and C. M. Mann, and Messrs. Jacob Gilliams, John Shinn, N. D. Parmentier, and John Speakman, met at the house of the latter and instituted the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. Thomas Say joined them a few weeks later, but has always been regarded as one of the founders.

Dr. Troost was a native of Holland, and for a time was a pupil of the celebrated mineralogist, the Abbé Haüy. Subsequently he was sent by Louis Bonaparte, then King of Holland, to Java as naturalist, but the ship on which, he took passage was captured by a French privateer, and he was made a prisoner. On regaining his liberty he started for the New World, landing in Philadelphia in 1810, and soon engaged in the manufacture of alum. He accompanied Maclure to New Harmony (of which more anon), and, on the failure of the community, became professor in the university at Nashville, and subsequently was appointed State Geologist of Tennessee, a position he held until a year before his death, which occurred in 1850.

William Maclure, the pioneer American geologist, was a Scotchman by birth. He came early in life to Philadelphia, where by a successful mercantile life he acquired an ample fortune. He spent several years in travel, hammer in hand, exploring every State and Territory from the Gulf of St. Lawrence to Florida. The results of these excursions were embodied in the first paper on American geology ever published, which appeared in the "Transactions of the American Philosophical Society" in 1809. At the time of the foundation of the Academy he was on a geological trip, but as soon as he returned he became a member, and from that time until his death retained a lively interest in its welfare and prosperity. He gave largely of books, specimens, and money, his donations of the former amounting to over 5,000 volumes, and of the latter more than $25,000. Mr. Maclure was eminently a philanthropist, but, like many others of similar disposition, was rather visionary. He entertained the idea of educating all mankind, of establishing a university where all human knowledge should be taught, and was also a firm believer in, and strong advocate of, the "community system"; and, with these ideas predominant, he persuaded Troost, Say, and Lesueur to accompany him to New Harmony, Indiana, where his Utopian plans were to be carried into execution. But man is liable to err, and internal dissensions and legal difficulties soon caused the community to break up. Maclure died shortly after in Mexico.

Thomas Say was born in Philadelphia in 1787, and in his early years attended a private school some miles out of the city, where, owing to the inefficiency of his instructors, he acquired but little except a most intense dislike to all polite literature. His father, seeing that his tastes were anything but literary, apprenticed him to an apothecary, and afterward he entered into partnership with John Speakman in the drug-business. This partnership was peculiar in the disinterestedness with which it was conducted. Speakman alone attended to the business, that his partner might devote all his time to the pursuit of science. But the firm of Speakman and Say came to an untimely end by indorsing for unfortunate friends. After the failure, Say took up his quarters in the rooms of the society, making his bed beneath the skeleton of a horse, and living for several years on bread and milk, with an occasional chop or egg, during which time his food did not cost on the average twelve cents a day. Say, as has been stated, accompanied Maclure to New Harmony, where he remained as agent after the failure, until his death in 1827. Thomas Say was the father of American entomology, and his papers on other departments of zoölogy were numerous and valuable.

The first meetings of the Academy were held at the house of Mr. Speakman, and afterward a few occurred in a public-house known as the "Mercers' Cake-Shop," but, as custom demanded that all frequenting the place should become patrons, and fearing that the society would forsake the paths of science and degenerate into a gastronomic club, more secluded quarters were secured over a millinery-store on Second Street, near Race, and there was formed the nucleus of the present large library and collections. Dr. John Barnes was the first member elected, and it is related that, on the occasion of his first taking his seat as a member, the seven founders, who had constituted themselves a committee of management, withdrew to transact some business, leaving him alone to constitute a meeting of the Academy. In the first year of its existence the society came in possession of the Seybert collection of minerals, at a cost of $750.

The growth of the collections soon demanded increased accommodations, and a larger room was hired, on the opposite side of the street, which was occupied until August, 1815, when the society moved into a building erected for them on Arch Street, near Second. In 1817 a charter was obtained, and the same year the publication of a journal containing the scientific papers presented to the Academy was begun. In 1826 the library and museum had again outgrown their quarters, and the Swedenborgian church, at the corner of Twelfth and Sansom Streets, was purchased and adapted to the needs of the society at a cost of about $6,000. Several members opposed the purchase of this property, and Mr. Maclure, when called upon to subscribe, at first declined, giving as a reason his belief that the "community system" would prevail, Philadelphia be deserted, and that those who lived long enough would "see the foxes looking out of the windows." He eventually gave several hundred dollars. This building was occupied by the Academy fourteen years, when a return of the old trouble, a lack of room, necessitated a new building, which was accordingly erected on the corner of Broad and Sansom Streets, and first occupied in February, 1840. Seven years later it was found necessary to enlarge the building, to accommodate the Duc di Rivoli collection of birds, numbering 12,000 specimens, which were presented by Dr. Wilson, who also bore the expense of the enlargement. The building was again enlarged in 1854~'55, the expense being borne by subscription. In 1868 a lot was purchased on Nineteenth, Race, and Cherry Streets, containing more than an acre, at a cost of $65,000. The corner-stone of a new building was laid with appropriate ceremonies October 30, 1872. The society held their first meeting in this edifice January 11, 1876.

The portion of the building at present erected and occupied by the Academy forms not quite a third of the contemplated structure. It is built in what is called the collegiate-Gothic style of architecture, of a green serpentine, with light-brown sandstone trimmings. This wing is one hundred and eighty-six feet long and seventy-five feet broad. The basement is devoted to storage, with rooms for a taxidermist and a printing-office. On the ground-floor and its galleries are the library, studies, rooms for artists, a bindery, a smoking-room, the herbarium, and collections of insects and microscopes and microscopic slides. The library is one hundred and thirty feet long and thirty feet wide between the ends of the cases, with a gallery at the height of ten feet, and contains the largest collection of works on natural history—over 26,000 volumes—in America. The floor of the library is used for the meetings of the Academy, and will seat over four hundred people. From the entrance on Race Street, two short flights of stairs bring one to the museum, a hall extending the whole length and width of the building, with two wide galleries, giving a floor-space of more than three fifths of an acre. The whole is fairly lighted by windows in the sides and by a lantern sky-light eighty feet in length. The whole building is fire-proof, is heated throughout by steam, and was erected at a cost of nearly a quarter of a million dollars.

A description of a museum is by no means an easy task, even in the case of a small collection; but, when the number of specimens is as large as in the present instance, it is only possible to enumerate a very small proportion of the many treasures. On entering the hall, the visitor sees almost immediately in front of him, towering to a height of fifteen feet, a skeleton of Hadrosaurus, a kangaroo-like reptile from the greensand of New Jersey; around this are assembled a polar bear, a rhinoceros-skeleton, two or three whale-skeletons, the frame of a gorilla, a stuffed giraffe, and another in the condition Sydney Smith wished to be in in hot weather, divested of flesh, and sitting, or rather standing, in its bones. The table-cases and some of the upright cases near by are filled with fossils, while in the wall-cases on the south side of the building is displayed the ghastly collection of skulls, about twelve hundred in number, which is not excelled anywhere in the world. The upright cases on the north are occupied by the mammals, while the wall-cases contain the fishes. Two flights of stairs at opposite ends of the hall give access to the galleries, the railing-cases of which are occupied by the minerals. The first gallery is the most attractive to the ordinary visitor, as almost every case is devoted to the enormous collection of birds, over 30,000 stuffed specimens being displayed, while many thousand skins are packed away in drawers. Of this large number, 27,000 specimens were the gift of one person, the late Dr. T. B. Wilson, of Philadelphia. The collection is the third largest in the world, being excelled only by that of the British Museum and one in Vienna. Besides the collection of the Due di Rivoli, mentioned before, it contains the collection of 2,000 specimens formerly owned by the distinguished ornithologist, John Gould, and which formed the basis of his magnificent work on the birds of Australia. Here may be seen a specimen of the great auk, of which only two other specimens exist in America, and less than a dozen in the whole world. There is also an egg of the same bird, there being but one more in this country. And, while mentioning the eggs, we would say that the collection of these fragile objects is not excelled in Europe, embracing as it does 5,000 specimens, representing 1,323 identified species. The crabs, lobsters, and shrimps occupy cases beneath the windows of the galleries, over 1,000 different kinds being exhibited. On the second gallery are the shells, the largest collection in the world, both in species and in specimens. The largest single donation to this department was the collection of George W. Tryon, Jr., of over 100,000 specimens, illustrating over 10,000 species. Of the fresh-water mussels alone, 783 different kinds are on exhibition. The collections of star-fishes, sea-urchins, and corals are on this floor, but, though large, are excelled by those of several institutions in the United States.

Owing to the destructive action of light, the insects are not displayed, but are kept in two rooms connected with the library. Over 70,000 different species and hundreds of thousands of specimens represent the insect world. The herbarium is also very extensive, and occupies two rooms opposite to those devoted to insects.

The Academy holds its regular meetings every Tuesday evening, at which times papers giving an account of original investigations are presented, and remarks are made on various scientific subjects. Besides these regular meetings, members who are interested in special subjects have associated themselves in "sections," which meet at stated intervals. Four of these sections now exist, devoted respectively to microscopy, conchology, botany, and entomology. The Academy maintains two series of publications, while the conchological and entomological sections have at times published their scientific proceedings separately. The total publications of the Academy and its sections numbered, July, 1876, 3,681 pages and 404 plates quarto, and 20,752 pages and 499 plates octavo.

This magnificent museum and library is a monument to the generosity of comparatively few of the citizens of the "City of Brotherly Love." With the exception of exemption from taxation, not one cent has the Academy had from city or State. General funds it has none, its running expenses being paid by the annual dues of the members and the proceeds of a small admission-fee (ten cents) to the museum. Its special funds realize about $600 a year for publication, and $1,800 for the library. There is also a scholarship fund which pays two or three students twenty dollars a month while pursuing studies at the Academy.

The object of this rather statistical sketch is not only to give an account of one of the most prominent scientific organizations in the country, but also to encourage the people of other cities to do likewise. There is not a place of 20,000 inhabitants in the country which should not be able to support a scientific society, and, though time would be required to accumulate such a library and such collections as those owned by the Philadelphia Academy, still no one should be discouraged, since no beginning could be more humble than the one we have described. Science is becoming every day more prominent in our country, and our colleges are rapidly giving it that preference which has been accorded to the dead languages in the past, and this is a change for the better, for it is a fact that the American mind is a practical one. The number of young men who attend our colleges to-day is relatively smaller than it was a hundred years ago; and even of college students a large proportion become farmers or physicians, or follow mining, manufacturing, or mercantile pursuits, and to them science is of far more practical value than the wars of Cæsar or the "Birds" of Aristophanes. The field of science is an expensive and difficult one for the isolated student to explore. Specimens are requisite and books are necessary, and these are most readily obtained by a co-operation of all who are interested, and this very co-operation for this purpose is the foundation of all scientific societies.