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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Fielding Bradford Meek

Fielding Bradford Meek (1817-1876), Smithsonian Institution Archives, SIA RU000095 [SA-735].  “[T]he paleontologist is a queer character,” Robert Kennicott notes in his letter “Folks at Home”. “Indeed he [Meek] is very excellent and Honorable gentleman with fine feelings and extremely modest though he is now one of our best Paleontologists.”

Meek was born on December 10, 1817 in Madison, Indiana, with a family including his parents and siblings. The beginning of his life was a bit difficult, having poor health and a father who passed away when he was only three years old. Despite the hardships, Meek moved forward with his career and in 1848, was made assistant to Dr. David Dale Owen and helped organize the United States Geological Survey of Iowa, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. Once his work with Dr. David Dale Owen was completed, Meek went to work with another Megatherium Club member, Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden, publishing many writings under the name “Meek & Hayden”. Three years after, Meek began preparing his publication on Cretaceous fossils from Nebraska for the American Academy of Arts and Sciences of Boston; this would be his first publication.

Moving to Washington, DC in 1858, Meek became a member of the Megatherium Club, earning a room and workspace in the main tower of the Castle, thanks to the help of Assistant Secretary Spencer Baird. Though in poor health for most of his life and becoming increasingly deaf as the years went on, Meek’s health never caused him to opt out of conversing with scientists in the Castle, according to Megatherium Club members.

Fielding Bradford Meek (1817-1876) was a paleontologist; geologist; resident collaborator in Paleontology at the Smithsonian; and a member of the Megatherium Club. Along with Ferdinand Hayden, he authored a book on Paleontology of the Upper Missouri. SIA RU000095 [SA-734].

Geologist and paleontologist. By Julius Ulke, 1878. SIA Acc. 11-006 [MAH-9505].

Geologist and paleontologist. By Henry Ulke, 1880. SIA Acc. 11-006 [MAH-9699].

Following his field work with Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden in the American West, Fielding Bradford Meek, 1817-1876, was a paleontologist at the Smithsonian from 1858 to 1876. He lived with his cat in a tiny room under the stairs in the North Tower of the Smithsonian Castle from 1858 until his death. In his early years he had taken an interest in fossil bones and made paleontology his specialty. Meek participated in 14 expeditions and surveys and was a member of the National Academy of Sciences. 1329 or AI-1329.

Pencil drawing by Fielding B. Meek, a paleontologist, who lived in the "Castle" or Smithsonian Institution Building, of his cat watching water drip, which he labeled, "This is all the family I have." 92-15019.

Unfortunately, it was with grave hearts that the members of the club had to say goodbye to Meek on December 21, 1876. The institution gave him a proper funeral in the hall of the Smithsonian, where Secretary Joseph Henry honored Meek and spoke of his life’s accomplishments and feats.

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