William Stimpson and the Smithsonian’s First Aquarium

William Stimpson, 1860, photograph, salted paper print, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Insti Fish bowls had been known in ancient Rome and medieval China, but aquariums did not come into being until the mid-nineteenth century, and when they did, they proved amazingly popular. Two aquariums opened to the American public in the fall of 1857. The first was at the American Museum, the New York attraction organized by the showman, P. T. Barnum. The second was at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. An important Washington newspaper, the Daily National Intelligencer, mentioned the Smithsonian's display on November 2, 1857: "Another and no doubt a successful effort is making for an Aquarium, which failed before for want of a supply of sea water. Living beings drawn from a hundred fathoms depth of ocean may be kept in this way even through the severest winter, and in perfect health and vigor." According to a subsequent notice, this aquarium was "renewed and inhabited by at least a part of the numerous little marine animals intended for it" and they appear "very lively and self-enjoying."

In a similar vein, the Washington Union reported that "A fine 'marine aquavivarium' or 'aquarium' has been prepared at the Smithsonian Institute, where the public can now inspect its curious contents." This went on to say that "an eminent French zoologist, in order to prosecute his studies on marine animals of the Mediterranean, provided himself with a water-dress, glass helmet and breathing tubes, that he might walk about under water and mark the habits of the various creatures pursuing their avocations. Anyone who will visit the Smithsonian aquarium will enjoy the same opportunities, and become acquainted with the strange animals and plants of the sea without diving to gaze on them." The Smithsonian tank contained "about three hundred specimens of animal vitality, belonging to some thirty-eight species of fishes, Molluscae, Crustacea, and Polypes." This article was picked up by the Daily Cleveland Herald and by Scientific American.

Further information comes from Simon Brown, the editor of The New England Farmer who attended a United States Agricultural Society meeting in the East Room of the Smithsonian Institution Building (commonly known as the "Castle") in early 1858. This, he said, was "the room in which the philosophical instruments are deposited," adding that it contained "maps, and drawings of fishes and animals, and among the rest what is called 'A Marine Aquarium.'" The aquarium was "about five feet long by eighteen inches high, and three feet wide" and contained 38 kinds of animals. Attuned to natural theology, as were so many Americans at the time, Brown concluded with: "Here we have, in miniature, some of the wonderful operations of the great sea, and find opened to our eyes a new world of animal and vegetable life, all expressing with new force the wisdom and power of Him who made them all."

An aquarium has recently become Additonal clues appear in the lists of donations in the Smithsonian's Annual Reports: "Two kegs and numerous jars of marine invertebrates and fishes from Massachusetts; living marine animals for aquarium" from William Stimpson, and "Living actinia and other marine animals for aquarium" from Mr. Tufts, in 1857; and "Living marine animals from Massachusetts, for the aquarium" from Mr. Tufts in 1858. Stimpson was a marine zoologist and was associated with the Smithsonian. Samuel Tufts, Jr., was a shoemaker, naturalist, and aquarium stocker in Swampscott.

In January 1858, in a brief account of a report of a new mollusk captured off the coast of North Carolina, the New-York Daily Tribune mentioned "Mr. William Stimson (who has charge of the aquarium which attracts so many visitors to the Smithsonian)." Later that year, the American Journal of Science ran a critical but well-informed review of A. M. Edwards, Life Beneath the Waters, or, the Aquarium in America. It explained that Edwards's text was derived, in large part, from British sources, and noted many instances in which American aquatic animals, both fresh water and marine, differed from European ones. And it mentioned in passing that "self-supporting aqua-vivaria were used here [in America] before their invention in Europe." W. S., the author of the review, in all likelihood was William Stimpson.

Smithsonian Explorers, The Megatherium Club Stimpson was surely also responsible for the unsigned but lengthy review of two British aquarium books that appeared in the North American Review. This stated, in part, that in 1849, while still a student at the Latin School in Cambridge Massachusetts, Stimpson had made "seven or eight small aquaria" that "were perfectly successful; inasmuch as he kept some of them in a healthy condition for several months without change of water." Stimpson, the review went on to say, "published no account of his success, not knowing that it was a subject which was just beginning to awaken attention in England, and fated eventually to excite such universal interest." Nevertheless, "To him may safely be assigned the credit of having made the first systematic attempt of constructing an aqua-vivarium, although in all the works before us that honor is given" to others.

Family money supported Stimpson's scientific habit, and his energy and talent attracted the attention of Louis Agassiz, the Swiss naturalist who had arrived in the United States in 1846 and landed a berth at Harvard. According to one account, Stimpson served Agassiz "more as a collaborator than an assistant or pupil." We don’t know if the two men ever talked about aquariums but, given Agassiz's long-standing interest in aquatic creatures, we can be sure that he would have been fascinated by the form. Indeed, Agassiz's wife Elizabeth, an educator in her own right, was responsible for A First Lesson in Natural History (Boston, 1859), a book written for children and parents who "share the general juvenile delight in Aquariums."

Stimpson became a naturalist with the North Pacific Exploring Expedition in 1852. Four years later, when the Expedition's marine specimens were deposited at the Smithsonian, he moved to Washington to work with this material. While his aquarium at the Smithsonian was established in 1857, it is not clear how long it was there. Stimpson went on to receive an honorary Doctorate of Medicine from the Columbian University in 1860, became Director of the Chicago Academy of Sciences in 1865, and was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1868. He died in 1872, shortly after his papers and collections were destroyed in the great Chicago fire.

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