The Megatherium Club

Learn about the Megatherium Club, named after a giant extinct sloth that once roamed South America, which consisted of an eccentric group of young naturalists aiming to understand the natural world, and build the Smithsonian’s collection in the mid to late 1800s. 

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Folks at Home: February 17, 1863

“Folks at Home: February 17, 1863” was sent to the Smithsonian Institution Archives by The Grove National Historic Landmark. In this letter, Robert Kennicott, co-founder of the Megatherium Club, wrote about his life at the Smithsonian Castle and described his relationship to the club’s members. This letter acts as a great segue into further research of the Megatherium Club and its members. Note: Kennicott mentions sending photographs with this letter, however we do not know which ones. Some of the photographs included below may or may not have been sent. They are included to show some of the members of the club.

February 17, 1863

“Folks at Home”

“You all ask me for details of my life here; and I can readily understand that these must interest you—Now as I’m quite too egotistical by nature to have it desirable that I should cultivate egotism by writing altogether of myself, I’ll rather give you somewhat in detail some account of the Megatherium Club who compose my principal associates. (Of Prof. Henry & Prof. Baird I think I’ve sometimes written already.) By knowing of these men you’ll get a better idea of my doings.

I’ll send the photographs of all I can.

Edward Drinker Cope (1840-1897), Smithsonian Institution Archives, SIA RU000095 [SA-420]. Cope, though not here now, was here a while since and will be again—I’ve told you something of him already. He is a Philadelphia Quaker – quite young, only about 23, but an old student, a very hard worker and with a very good head “of his own.” He is bound to be one of the first naturalists of the age. Fortunately he is independently rich and so can give his whole time to study. He is working especially upon reptiles in which he is far ahead of everyone else in this country. For this reason and because he is a P.B. [perfect brick] and a good fellow generally with a heart as well as head I like him best of all the young fellows – after Stimpson. As with Stimpson and Ulke I can fraternize with him.

William Stimpson (1832-1872), Smithsonian Institution Archives, SIA RU000095 [SA-778]. Stimpson is one of those chaps like Panx who makes you like them whether you will or no. He is a perfect gentleman, very well educated and ranks with the first zoologists of the age, though only about as old as I am. Stimpson is preeminently conducive and good hearted and withal is a man of refined feelings and tastes – He has the strange weakness of wishing to appear idle, thoughtless, and even dissipated. From merely hearing him talk one would suppose he was a hard drinking idle fellow with no ambition beyond being considered a good fellow. Yet he is extremely modest and does not in reality care at all for praise. He is very sensitive, warm hearted and a staunch friend. I am glad to say that he seems to like me as much as I do him. He and I fraternize more than any other two. Father can tell you more of him. He is just as young and fresh as when father was here. I have some slight hopes of seeing Stim at work in Chicago at some future time when we get a little start in science there – In fact once get such a man connected with any scientific association in Chicago and he alone would put it on a respectable basis among the scientific institutions of the world. His father is a man of moderate means (a merchant in Boston) and Stim endeavors to make his own living – If he could secure a respectable salary by so doing, he would willingly work in the west – If I could only have him with me in Chicago we would grease the wheels of the Academy or some other Natural History institution, that would get up a momentum that would run it well up to the top of American zoology in a short time.

Stimpson is one of those kind of men that add a charm to any pursuit with which they are connected. His presence produces a most happy effect here, giving a rosy tint to the atmosphere of science which pervades this building, while his pleasant style of hard work helps one to be industrious. Stim’s specialty is marine invertebrates of all kinds.

Theodore Nicholas Gill (1837-1914), Smithsonian Institution Archives, SIA RU000095 [SA-602]. Gill, (Ichthyobranchius, as he is more generally called) is about the oddest fish I’ve come across. His principal study is fish, though he is well posted in and publishes on various groups. He is a man of decidedly wonderful talent in the matter of classification and study of the higher groups – that is in the investigation of genera, families and orders, in contradistinction to the study of species. And if he would work harder and more patiently at the details he would be one of the first zoologists of the age. As it is he ranks as about the best Ichthyologist of America though he too is quite young – not over 27 or 28.

He has published of late the most enormous amount of matter chiefly on the classification of fishes and has described as many new genera & families as he has species – Whether his genera are all good is another question, though many of them are adopted by the highest authorities in Europe. From his not studying species with sufficient thoroughness I should think he would be very liable to make many mistakes even where his views are correct. Agassiz has from this and some other causes made some woefully bad work.

You see this matter of working in genera and the higher groups is something different from that on species, and sometimes the man who is capable of doing the best work in investigating and describing species correctly is not as good on classification even where he has the requisite knowledge.

Thus in my own case though I believe I’ve really done good work in the species of N. Am. Serpents, I’ve not attempted anything in the higher classification, nor would I be at all competent for it; though I’m flattered by finding that the few genera I discovered all stand, even one which Cope at first rejected. (This side zoological matter may interest the paternal who can understand it.)

To return to Gill he is as you see from his photograph, not the handsomest fellow in the world, yet he’s especially vain of his personal appearance and devotes considerable time to adoring himself and giving ladies an opportunity to admire him!

He is not without a good opinion of his intellectual qualities by any means but he prides himself especially upon his personal beauty -- Fortunately he takes any amount of chaffing and laughing at and affords us no end of fun.

Fielding Bradford Meek (1817-1876), Smithsonian Institution Archives, SIA RU000095 [SA-735]. Meek, the Paleontologist is a queer character. But a much more estimable man than Gill – Indeed he is a very excellent and Honorable gentleman with fine feelings and extremely modest though he is now one of our best Paleontologists – He is perhaps the best in certain specialties in America. Decidedly better than Hall of N.Y. who has so great a popular reputation – Meek is some 40 years old but quite fresh and boyish in feeling like all naturalists. He is very deaf and this has made him extremely retiring. He never goes into society and the uninitiated never know what an excellent fellow he is. He is wholly devoted to science and scarce thinks of anything else.

He is a little bald and wears his hat indoors a great deal, so Prof. Dana told him to have his photog taken with it on which he did – The result is to give him somewhat the look of a fast “bhoy” the very reverse of his character. Father will perhaps remember him as he was one of the old Megatheria – He it is that has done the scientific work on the numerous papers published by “Meek & Hayden.” 

Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden (1829-1887), Smithsonian Institution Archives, SIA RU000095 [SA-657]. Hayden, one of the original Megatheria, is not here now. He is as eccentric (outrageously so) as ever – He is a surgeon in the Army now. A jolly good fellow is Hayden who always falls desperately in love several times a month and is always just about to marry but will never do so I’ll bet a hat, for he would have a new loveliest ere the wedding preparations could be made – Reckon I’d better suggest to Hayden the idea of sending for Mr. Collyer!

Thomas Egleston (1832-1900), Smithsonian Institution Archives, SIA RU000095 [SA-508]. Prof. Hopkins, one of the six Megatheria now here, is an elderly man, a friend of Prof. Henry’s and who is more in Physics than Nat. Hist. – He is a brick and conducive, however –

Eglestone is a mineralogist, young, very learned and wealthy, but a good hard worker and a P.B. and conductor – He may be called a Pious Conductor, being very high High Church Episcopalian, sticking up for all the forms, etc. He is the sixth resident Megatherian.

Dr. Allen is a young Philadelphian whom Prof. Baird set at work to study and monograph the N Am. Bats of which very little was known – He has prepared a splendid little work and proved himself an able Naturalist; as he also proved himself a P.B. and conductor worthy to be a part of the Megatherium, during a three weeks stay here a short time since when Prof. Baird got him a leave of absence avowedly for the purpose of finishing his monograph! (He is an Ast. Surgeon in the regular Army.) You see the Smithsonian has long arms! Allen by S. I. Influence – that is at Baird’s request to the Surgeon Gen. – will soon be ordered to a hospital in Washington where we will see a good deal of him as he will come here and work frequently – Allen is an excellent fellow, very young, but learned and clever.

Dr. Cooper, one of the old Megatheria, is now in California, a surgeon in the regular army.

Comes is a new and young ornithologist of this city, now a medical Cadet. He will enter the regular army as Ast. Surgeon for the sake of being sent to some outpost in the Rocky Mts. Or elsewhere to collect. We don’t see much of him as his hospital duties confine him pretty closely.

L. E. (Lucius Eugene) Chittenden (1824-1900) Mr. Chittenden (whose autograph you see on the green backs) is registrar of the U.S. Treasury and being a man of considerable scientific tastes & acquirements studies shells, ornithology, etc. – only as an amateur however – He is a P.B. and conductor. Gives the Megatheria a standing invitation to dinner every time they can come and gives us good dinners when we get there.

Prof. Honsford of Harvard University has been a good deal here of late, and has been a semi Megatherian – living at Prof. Henry’s but coming into our rooms in the evening and telling us good stories and conducing generally.

Dr. Torry (the Dr. Torry) the Botanist has been here for some time – He is a P. P. B., conducive and jolly. He doesn’t look over 45 years old and evidently feels younger – He comes in and yarns with us and is very conducive. He is in charge of the U.S. Assay office in New York – is here lecturing on “Light” – He is a celebrated chemist as well as botanist – He will give me his photog for father – He attended our Potomac Side Naturalists Club meeting last night. It was my entertainment and with Stim’s aid in concocting egg nog etc. I managed to get up a good entertainment, using alcohol bottles for drinking cups and a big shell for ladle etc. – It went off capitally – about 25 present and Dr. Torry, Honsford and others seemed to enjoy it hugely – The fact is the Megatheria are very general favorites and are allowed considerable privileges – We invite people to about the poorest dinners they perhaps ever ate with only ale to drink and yet so excellent is the sauce of conduction that our poor dinners in our coal hole like dining room go off capitally and seem very well liked. At first I felt a little ashamed to invite people to dinner, but I don’t see but conduction goes farther than fine table and good eatables, etc. 

Mr. Gavitt of New York, one of the principal men in this great “Am. Bank Note Co.,” has been in town a good deal this winter – He is rather zoological and seems mightily pleased with our clubs society – He came to our meeting last night, and took dinner with us today and made himself generally conducive and agreeable – He rendered himself further agreeable to us by bringing his very pretty daughter to the S.I. several times when I’m afraid I didn’t refuse quite as decidedly as I might have done to spend some time showing her about the Institution. She is exceedingly young and natural though very clever and caused a sad interruption in the work room and kept me away from my working den also – by spending several hours in the work room this afternoon. She was by acclamation elected an Honorary Member of the Megatheria, at Prof. Baird’s suggestion.

I was invited to visit Mr. Gavitt’s house in New York where he is to show me (and Bruno if he comes) some boating, etc., the Bank note establishment, etc. – Reckon I’ll accept the invitation especially as “twas backed by Miss G. I suspect Bruno and I could find something to interest us.

Spencer Fullerton Baird Prof. Baird is at all times as conducive as his work will allow him to be and when he will allow himself a few minutes comes out most brilliantly especially if we can get up a little spanning match between him and Stimpson or Cassin. It is in Prof. Baird’s library at his house though that we get the best conduction from him – When Mrs. Baird’s health is not a subject of anxiety to him and his work doesn’t crowd too much he is always ready to keep us laughing – making up for any loss of time by setting us at work on some odd job before we leave. Prof. Baird is just about the best and most wonderful man I ever did see. – I never could conceive the possibility of anyone failing in respect toward him and yet he is extremely familiar with everyone –

Prof. Henry is an excellent and truly great man and at bottom conducive and P.B. but he stands more on his dignity and doesn’t meet us on the same familiar footing that Prof. Baird does – nor could any other man than Prof. Baird probably. Prof. Henry sometimes is quite conducive with us individually, however, and often comes in and talks with us -- He is a tremendous worker and I suppose now stands at the head of American Physicists. After all Baird is our first zoologist only excepting Dana – and if we consider the results to science of their operations and the time they’ve worked I suppose Baird is even ahead of Dana from his usefulness as a curator, teacher, collector, etc. and manager of the zoological part of this Institution. Dana is considered not only the first general Zoologist but also the best general Geologist.

Dana also is a perfect Brick and conductor – He was here when I was here before and was very kind to me and the rest of the Megatheria.

Jean Louis Agassiz, by Unknown, 1870, Smithsonian Archives - History Div, 2002-10678. Agassiz seems rather to sink than rise in reputation – But he too is a conductor though not

Exactly a P.B. as he is a little too selfish and egotistical.

Hall the Paleontologist is a kind of a skezeeks – neither Brickish nor conducive – Half his thunder he stole from others.

The Great and good John Casin is a glorious man, a P.P.P.B. and Prime conductor – He is a little on Prof. Baird’s style though not so perfect a man in all respects. He is frequently here and is considered one of the Megatheria.

Dr. Stuckley, now a brigade surgeon, is one of the Megatheria but isn’t here much. Dr. Newbury another but is in the west now.

Now then don’t tell me I don’t write long letters to you.

I commenced this several days since – It’s Feb. 17th now.

I enclose some photogs and will send more of Houseford, Stim, Torry & others – These are to be kept for me, however, as I’ll keep a collection of photogs of naturalists.

Got a telegram from Geo. Walker saying he would be here tomorrow.”

                                                                              Yours always

                                                                                     Bob