A Brief History of Science at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University

Philadelphia, March 1, 2012

The Academy of Natural Sciences was organized in 1812 by a small group of amateur naturalists dedicated to the "rational disposal of leisure moments" and "the advancement and diffusion of useful, liberal human knowledge." The Academy was one of the first institutions in the United States to devote its efforts exclusively to the study of natural history.

Among its early members were many of the men and women whose names are synonymous with the first organized study of natural history in North America, including entomologist and conchologist Thomas Say (1787-1834), who was one of seven founders; botanists William Bartram (1739-1823), Benjamin Smith Barton (1766-1815), and Thomas Nuttall (1786-1859); ornithologists Alexander Wilson (1766-1813), John Kirk Townsend (1809-1851), and John James Audubon (1780-1851); geologists Samuel G. Morton (1799-1851) and William Maclure (1763-1840), who was the Academy’s president from 1817 to 1840; mammalogists John D. Godman (1794-1830), Richard Harlan (1796-1843), and Titian Ramsay Peale (1799-1885); and mineralogist Gerard Troost (1776-1850), another founder.

Early European naturalists elected to corresponding membership included Georges Cuvier (1769-1832), Alexander Von Humboldt (1769-1859), Sir Richard Owen (1804-1892), John Gould (1804-1881), Sir Charles Lyell (1797-1875), Charles Darwin (1809-1882), and Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895).

The Earliest Years

Three months after the Academy’s founding, its members secured the use of a permanent meeting place in Philadelphia and began to amass an institutional library and collection of natural items, including common insects, shells from foreign countries, small stuffed birds, plants from near Paris and some artificial crystals. A few months later, members pooled their resources to purchase an important collection of nearly 2,000 mineral specimens from Adam Seybert (1773-1825).

To fulfill its commitment to public education, in 1812 and 1813 the Academy offered a series of lectures to its members and other interested parties based on the newly acquired Seybert collection (then the largest mineral collection in North America). These were so well received that in subsequent years, the Academy offered further lectures on mineralogy, chemistry, crystallography and botany for members and nonmembers.

Under the leadership and philanthropic patronage of Maclure, the Academy broadened its role from that of a regional center of scientific study to a national and international institution. An important step toward this end was the creation of a rigorously peer-reviewed scientific journal, which first was published in 1817. Distributed to members and learned societies throughout the U.S. and Europe, this publication did much to attract attention to the young Academy and its members.

In the 19th Century

As the Academy grew in size and reputation, its members traveled westward and overseas to document plants and animals that were new to science. Townsend and Nuttall were among the first to collect western American plants, birds and other animals under the Academy’s aegis. Their specimens still are part of the Academy’s massive research collection. Other Academy members involved with the exploration of the American West were Say and Titian Ramsay Peale II, both of whom accompanied Major Stephen H. Long (1784-1864) on his expedition to the Rocky Mountains in 1819. When Congress commissioned Lieutenant Charles Wilkes (1798-1877) to organize and lead an American exploring expedition around the world 19 years later, Peale was again invited to participate, along with Academy members Charles Pickering (1805-1878), James Dwight Dana (1813-1895), and Joseph P. Couthouy (1808-1864).

To accommodate its growing collections and membership, the Academy moved to new quarters in 1815. Ten years later, the institution moved again, this time to its own building at the corner of 12th and Sansom streets. In 1840 the institution moved to an even larger building, this one on the northwest corner of Broad and Sansom Streets. With the completion of this new, fireproof building, the Academy became the best-equipped institution in America for the study of the natural sciences. Among other things, the museum boasted the largest ornithological collection in the world (after 1856) and one of the finest natural history libraries in the country.

Membership figures were equally noteworthy. The original seven members had grown to about 200 living members by 1850. There were an additional 450 corresponding members. Qualitative growth matched quantitative growth: Of the 55 most prolific contributors to American scientific journals between 1815 and 1845, 44 (80 percent) were affiliated with the Academy.

The Academy’s fifth and final move came in 1876 when its members had a new building constructed at its current site on Logan Square at the corner of 19th Street and Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

In the 20th Century

Innovative research on aquatic ecosystems began at the Academy in 1947 when Dr. Ruth Patrick founded the Department of Limnology, years before the general public became aware of pollution and its effects on the environment. This undertaking marked the beginning of a broadened research orientation for the Academy, which included basic and applied research on aquatic ecosystems as well as the traditional systematics research (discovering and cataloging organisms). Patrick launched modern studies using the numbers and diversity of diatoms (microscopic single-cell plants) and larger aquatic organisms, such as macroinvertebrates and fishes, as indicators of ecosystem “health.” Many of the samples collected by Patrick Center staff have been added to the Academy’s extensive biologic collections, including the Diatom Herbarium, one of the two largest in the world. It includes some 220,000 slides, of which about 5,000 are type slides (the originals used to describe new species).

Patrick’s pioneering work spawned several research centers. The original Department of Limnology, renamed the Patrick Center for Environmental Research in 1983, today studies the structure and function of freshwater rivers, lakes and wetlands; assesses the effect of people’s activities on these systems; works to solve water quality problems; and promotes better management of aquatic resources.

In 1966 the Academy, in conjunction with Richard Stroud, founded the Stroud Water Research Center in Avondale, Pa. Now independent, the Stroud Center studies the ecological processes of streams and rivers. In 1967 the Academy founded the Benedict Estuarine Research Laboratory in Benedict, Md., to study the effects of people’s activities on estuaries and coastal ecosystems. In 1994 the center moved to a new location on the Patuxent River near St. Leonard, Md., and later was transferred to Morgan State University.

In the 21st Century

Today the Academy still is actively involved in conducting ecological and biodiversity research around the globe. Its collection of more than 18 million plant and animal specimens is ranked among the most important in the world, and researchers use it to study important issues such as climate change, invasive species, evolution and extinction. The collection includes such historically significant materials as Lewis and Clark’s plant specimens, Thomas Jefferson’s fossil collection, more than 150 of John James Audubon’s bird skins and the Australian specimens collected by John Gould in preparation for his books on the birds and mammals of that continent. The overall collection also features:

  • The oldest fish collection in the U.S.
  • The second oldest bird collection in the U.S.
  • The second largest shell collection in the U.S., with 10 million specimens
  • The world’s best collection of grasshoppers and crickets from the western hemisphere
  • The world’s best representation of diatom species
  • The world’s most comprehensive collection of bird images

The Academy’s Ewell Sale Stewart Library was established at the founding meeting of the Academy and today is internationally recognized as one of the world’s great natural history libraries. Its more than 200,000 volumes and one million archival items include extraordinarily rare and historic books, journals, art, artifacts, manuscripts, photographs and the unique papers and research of Academy members and staff.

The Academy’s public museum and education programs cover most fields of natural history and serve an audience of about 200,000 people annually. In 2011 the Academy became an affiliate of Drexel University and changed its name to the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University.

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