Exterior View of the Smithsonian Institution Building, or Castle, 1885

William Stimpson and the Golden Age of American Natural History

We bring to you the story of a dedicated naturalist turned museum pioneer.

Ron Vasile teaches AP U.S. History, U.S. History and Anthropology at Lockport Township High School in Lockport, Illinois. The following is an abridged excerpt from his new book, "William Stimpson and the Golden Age of American Natural History," a biography of the founder of the Smithsonian Institution's Department of Invertebrate Zoology.

William Stimpson (1832-1872), Smithsonian Institution Archives, SIA RU000095 [SA-778]. As the brilliant nature writer Loren Eiseley aptly noted, “A biography is always constructed from ruins, but as any archaeologist will tell you, there is never the means to unearth all the rooms, or follow the buried roads, or dig into every cistern for treasure. You try to see what the ruin meant to whoever inhabited it and, if you are lucky, you see a little backward into time.” Eiseley's words are particularly applicable to the life of the naturalist William Stimpson, who on three occasions suffered the loss of significant scientific collections and manuscripts by fire.

Born to a prosperous family near Boston in 1832, Stimpson quickly became enamored with the sea, collecting marine animals and keeping them alive in aquaria. His father Herbert, a stove manufacturer and inventor, discouraged his son from what he considered frivolous endeavors but William persevered, and in 1850 he reluctantly agreed to allow Stimpson to become a student of Louis Agassiz at Harvard University. A Swiss immigrant, Agassiz had quickly established himself as the most famous naturalist in America. Under his tutelage Stimpson became one of the first professionally trained zoologists in America, but after two years Stimpson was the first, but by no means the last, of Agassiz’s American students to break with their brilliant but domineering teacher.

In 1852 Stimpson was appointed zoologist on the U. S. North Pacific Exploring Expedition, and for the next three years he missed no opportunity to collect all manner of natural history specimens, especially marine invertebrates. He was the first Western naturalist to collect in Japan, just months after Commodore Matthew Perry’s treaty opened up the country. He also made significant collections in Africa, Australia and the North Pacific and in the process joined a small fraternity of explorer- naturalists, including James Dwight Dana and Charles Darwin, to embark on a circumnavigation of the earth.

The collections were sent to the recently founded Smithsonian Institution, and in 1856 Stimpson came to Washington to begin sorting, classifying, and describing the marine invertebrates, a task that would occupy him for the next five years. Stimpson was preeminently a taxonomist, and in the course of his career he described over 600 currently recognized species, mostly crustaceans, mollusks, and marine worms. He also contributed to the higher levels of classification by instituting more than 150 new genera and families.

Smithsonian Explorers, The Megatherium Club While in Washington, Stimpson became the leader of the informal Megatherium Club, a group of young naturalists that had ties to the Smithsonian. The irreverent and fun-loving Megatheria were one of the most distinguished aggregations of scientists in American history, and they formed the nucleus of Washington, D. C.’s first scientific organization, the Potomac Side Naturalists Club. They all sought the approval of the Smithsonian’s Assistant Secretary, Spencer Fullerton Baird, dubbed a “collector of collectors” and the man in charge of the museum.

During this period Stimpson also worked as a reviewer for the American Journal of Science, the country’s leading scientific journal. In dozens of reviews Stimpson established himself as an ardent defender of American science, whose devotees felt that European naturalists had ignored their work. Stimpson was also an advocate for higher standards among those practicing descriptive natural history and he harshly criticized those that failed to do so.

At the beginning of the Civil War Stimpson and other naturalists were allowed to live in the Smithsonian building. The Megatherium Club experienced a brief resurgence, but Secretary Joseph Henry, who also lived in the building with his wife and three daughters, witnessed some of their antics and in 1863 ordered most of them to find lodgings elsewhere.

Stimpson’s life took a decisive turn in 1865 when his closest friend among the Megatheria, the Illinois naturalist Robert Kennicott, asked him to oversee the Chicago Academy of Sciences for a year while Kennicott explored in Russian America. Kennicott died at Nulato the following year, but the reports that he and his team sent back helped to convince Congress to purchase Alaska in 1867.

Stimpson now faced a crucial decision. The Academy trustees asked him to take over permanently. Doing so would largely curtail if not end his career as a marine zoologist, but leaving would hurt the Academy. As Spencer Baird counseled him, “You are very right in your view as to remaining. It would be fair to you perhaps to come permanently eastward but it would be death to the Ch Mus [sic].”Staying more out of a sense of obligation and loyalty rather than personal preference inevitably cloaked Stimpson’s years in Chicago in an uncomfortable ambivalence.

Visitors to Lower Main Hall, SIB Like Agassiz and Baird, the other great museum builders of the time, Stimpson largely sacrificed his own scientific investigations in order to create a significant natural history museum. The Academy suffered a devastating fire in 1866 but erected a new “fire-proof” building two years later. By 1871 the Academy possessed one of the finest collections of natural history specimens in America. The Smithsonian sent its entire collection of marine invertebrates in alcohol to Chicago for Stimpson to curate and donated thousands of other specimens to the Chicago Academy, at least in part due to the close personal ties between Baird and both Stimpson and Kennicott.

Unfortunately, the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 utterly destroyed the Academy’s museum. Stimpson also lost several unpublished manuscripts that he had labored over for decades, including the zoological report of the North Pacific Exploring Expedition. He died of pulmonary tuberculosis less than eight months later at the age of 40. Within a generation he was largely forgotten in Boston, Washington, and Chicago, the three cities where he worked. His story is finally told in my new book, William Stimpson and the Golden Age of American Natural History, published in 2018 by Northern Illinois University Press.

Sadly, Stimpson lies buried in an unmarked grave in Howard County, Maryland, less than 40 miles from the Smithsonian. His legacy lives on, however, as he is considered the founder of the Smithsonian’s Department of Invertebrate Zoology. The Chicago Academy of Sciences rebuilt after the fire and continues on to this day, and Stimpson’s publications are still cited by zoologists all over the world. As Eiseley also wrote, "the best annals of life are those in which a man strove against adversity and won, or, if not that, left an account of how his character was shaped." Stimpson faced more than his share of adversity, and while he may not have “won,” the story of his life provides ample evidence of his character.

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