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Illuminated 13th century manuscript, The Art of Falconry by early amateur naturalist Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor.
Illuminated 13th century manuscript, The Art of Falconry by early amateur naturalist Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor.

Building Scientific Collections

Fish specimens preserved in ethyl alcohol from the Smithsonian Institution scientific collections. Photo by Chip Clark © Smithsonian Institution
Fish specimens preserved in ethyl alcohol from the Smithsonian Institution scientific collections. Photo by Chip Clark © Smithsonian Institution

Natural history museums began, in part, from curiosity cabinets, where specimens were collected and displayed for private enjoyment. Most cabinet owners were not scientists, though they often wrote about the collections and, in some cases, employed artists to illustrate their specimens. Preservation techniques common today were non-existent for these collections, and much of this early material decayed. In 1660, Robert Boyle (1627-1691), most famously known for Boyle's gas law, discovered that "spirits of wine" (ethyl alcohol) preserved specimens. After this innovation, increasing numbers of private "wonder rooms" were developed as prestige collections by wealthy 18th and early 19th century collectors such as Dutch pharmacist Albertus Seba (1665-1736). These collections became the early foundation of major public museums as museum directors purchased the contents of private curiosity cabinets to enhance the diversity of their growing scientific collections.

Andrew Garrett, circa 1863.
Andrew Garrett, circa 1863.
Original photograph in archives of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University.

Development of museum collections also involved the collaboration of amateur naturalists who sent specimens to museum curators from far afield. Andrew Garrett (1823-1887), the artist and naturalist discussed in the Art and Natural History page, was a prolific collector of fishes. He sent many specimens to the famed zoologist Louis Agassiz, a curator at the Museum of Comparative Zoology (MCZ) at Harvard University. Much of what Garrett knew of collecting methods was self taught, but under the influence of Agassiz he refined his technique to record larger amounts of specimen data, including depth of capture, color in life, and habitat information. Collections Garrett made in the South Pacific over 150 years ago are still available for study at the MCZ today.

Charles Bendire, lieutenant, 1st Cavalry, U. S. Army, likely 1860s. Inset: Plate X from Life Histories of North American Birds... (1895).
Charles Bendire, lieutenant, 1st Cavalry, U. S. Army, likely 1860s. Inset: Plate X from Life Histories of North American Birds... (1895).

Charles Emil Bendire (1836-1897) was a German emigrant who joined the United States Army at age 18. During his first enlistment he was stationed at Fort Buchanan in southeastern Arizona. It was here that he developed an avid interest in the bird fauna of the region. He began amassing diverse collections of vertebrates and other natural history objects in the late 1860's, but he is best known as the first naturalist to focus on the collection and description of the eggs of bird species. He ultimately donated his private collection of over 8000 egg specimens to the Smithsonian Institution. Though Bendire initially sent his observations to other naturalists for publication, he eventually published articles and books under his own name, including Life Histories of North American Birds with Special Reference to their Breeding Habits and Eggs (1895). He remained a career military man, serving from 1854-1886 and rising to the rank of Army Major, but in recognition of his accumulated knowledge on the subject, he was named honorary curator of oology (or egg study) at the Smithsonian Institution in 1884. Bendire's Thrasher or Toxostoma bendirei was named in his honor, as he was the first naturalist to collect this species.

Former President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) and Edgar Mearns other members of his expedition party from the Smithsonian Roosevelt African Expedition (1909)
Photograph of former President Theodore Roosevelt (left) and Edgar Mearns (right) from the Smithsonian Roosevelt African Expedition (1909).
Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Archives.
Click on image to link to full photo.

Edgar A. Mearns (1856-1916) was a medical doctor who served in various capacities in the United States Army from 1882 to 1909, rising to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. He was known as a preeminent field naturalist and collector. His interest in natural history, particularly of birds, began at an early age and as a teenager he developed meticulous collections of the flora and fauna of his native Upstate New York. Despite his enthusiastic interest in natural history, he chose to pursue a medical degree and ultimately entered the medical department of the Army. In his free time, he continued to make natural history collections in the areas of the various duty stations he was assigned to, including the American Southwest, Minnesota, Wyoming, Virginia, and Rhode Island, the Philippines, and Guam. He served as the medical officer for the Mexican-United States International Boundary Commission from 1892 to 1894 and was granted permission to do a biological survey of the border areas provided he do so without additional cost to the army. His association with the Smithsonian enabled him to pursue this project and subsequently 30,000 specimens of various taxa were added to the museum's collections. In 1909, after retiring from the army, he served as a naturalist on President Roosevelt's expedition to East Africa, during which he and the presidential party made collections of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, herps and fishes that are also housed in the Smithsonian. Mearns published less than other naturalists of the day given his responsibilities in the Army, but he described multiple species of birds and mammals, many of which were published in the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, D.C., and he compiling a notable faunal inventory, Mammals of the Mexican Boundary of the United States (1907).

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