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A Glorious Enterprise–Part 1

Posted by Richard Conniff on June 27, 2012

The Philadelphia Hadrosaur

Though some of its counterparts are bigger and better known, the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia is the oldest natural history institution in the New World.  It is currently marking its 200th anniversary with an exhibition “The Nature of Discovery,” on display through next March.   Its colorful history is also the subject of a lavishly illustrated new book, A Glorious Enterprise (University of Pennsylvania Press), co-authored by Peck and historian Patricia Tyson Stroud, with photographs by Rosamund Purcell.  And I am marking the occasion with this article on some of the Academy’s accomplishments.

In November 1868, without fanfare or even much thought to how the public might respond, the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia opened its doors on one of the most sensational museum displays ever.  It was the world’s first nearly-complete dinosaur skeleton, discovered 10 years earlier in Haddonfield, New Jersey, and it was the first life-like dinosaur mount anywhere.

Hadrosaurus foulkii stood on its hind legs and towered more than two stories tall.  So many people showed up to gape at this astonishing monster that the Academy’s scientists, distracted from their studies, complained about “the excessive clouds of dust produced by the moving crowds,” not to mention broken glass and battered woodwork.  It was the beginning of dinosaur-mania in North America, and it changed the way museums everywhere would re-create the lost world of extinct species.

The Academy might have preferred to go about its work more quietly.  But it was by then accustomed to playing an important part in the history of the nation, and of science. Philadelphia considered itself “the Athens of America” in 1812, the year that a small band of naturalists met at the home of a local apothecary to found the Academy.  That it happened in the war year 1812 was “no coincidence,” says Robert Peck, a curator at the Academy.  “The United States was declaring our independence politically and economically again, and we were declaring our intellectual independence for the first time.”  Founding the Academy meant founding a democratic American science, the equal of its old world counterparts but without the elitist trappings.  The Academy would also have its own journal, so our scientists “would not have to run to Europe to have their discoveries vetted.”    It would be intellectually rigorous, but also inexpensively printed, so working people like the founders themselves could afford to read it.

In the decades that followed, the Academy would help shape the character of the American nation.  Its scientists helped plan and carry out the early exploration of the American West, founded and largely established the science of ornithology in America, served as the seed bed (albeit reluctantly) for Robert Owen’s utopian community at New Harmony, Indiana, became the center of scientific racism in the decades leading up to the Civil War, and fought one side in the brutal dinosaur “bone wars” of the late nineteenth century.  It counted Thomas Jefferson and Charles Darwin as corresponding members, was frequented by Edgar Allan Poe, and in the twentieth century gave the world that dashing British spy James Bond–or at least his namesake.  (Novelist Ian Fleming, a weekend birder in Jamaica, borrowed the name from the author of the field guide Birds of the West Indies, because it sounded suitably Anglo-Saxon.  He later gave a copy of one of his books to the original James Bond, an ornithologist at the Academy, signed, “To the real James Bond, from the thief of his identity.”)

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