The Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia uncorked a sometimes maddeningly democratic process of discovery in the young republic.

In November 1868, without fanfare or even much thought to how the public might respond, the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia opened its doors on one of the most sensational museum displays ever. It was the world’s first nearly complete and realistically displayed dinosaur skeleton, discovered 10 years earlier in Haddonfield, N.J. Hadrosaurus foulkii stood on its hind legs and was more than two stories high. So many visitors showed up to gape at this astonishing monster Academy scientists complained about “the excessive clouds of dust produced by the moving crowds,” not to mention broken glass and battered woodwork. The exhibit marked the beginning of dinosaur-mania in North America, and it changed the way museums everywhere would re-create the lost world of extinct species.

The Academy might have preferred to go about its work more quietly. But it had grown accustomed to playing an important part in the history of the nation, and of science. Philadelphia considered itself “the Athens of America” in 1812, when a small band of naturalists met at the home of a local apothecary to found the Academy. That the founding occurred during the War of 1812 “was no coincidence,” says Robert Peck, a curator at the Academy. “The United States was declaring our independence politically and economically again, and we were declaring our intellectual independence for the first time.” Founding the Academy meant founding a democratic American science, the equal of its Old World counterparts but without the elitist trappings. The Academy would also have its own journal, so American scientists “would not have to run to Europe to have their discoveries vetted.” The periodical would be intellectually rigorous, but also inexpensively printed, so working people like the founders themselves could afford to read it.

The Academy, which marks its 200th anniversary this year (see “Bicentennial Celebration,” p. 49), is the oldest natural history institution in the New World. Some of the Academy’s counterparts, including its main early rival, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., are bigger and more renowned. But for better—and sometimes for worse—no other scientific institution had a more seminal impact on the evolution of the young republic’s character.

Academy scientists helped plan and carry out the early exploration of the American West, established the science of ornithology in America and endorsed scientific racism in the decades leading up to the Civil War. The Academy counted Thomas Jefferson and Charles Darwin as corresponding members, was frequented by Edgar Allan Poe and, in the 20th century, gave the world that dashing British spy James Bond—or at least his namesake. (Novelist Ian Fleming, a weekend birder in Jamaica, thought the name of the author of the field guide Birds of the West Indies sounded suitably Anglo-Saxon. He later gave a copy of one of his books to the ornithologist, a member of the Academy, signed, “To the real James Bond, from the thief of his identity.”)

In 1812, Philadelphia was already home to the American Philosophical Society, dedicated by Benjamin Franklin to all studies “that let Light into the Nature of Things, tend to increase the Power of Man over Matter, and multiply the Conveniencies or Pleasures of Life.” The Philadelphia Museum was also thriving, with the artist Charles Willson Peale displaying portraits of great American patriots and specimens of great American wildlife side by side.

The founders of the Academy meant to set their enterprise apart by focusing exclusively on the natural world, not culture or the arts. And they wanted to do scholarly work, avoiding the kind of hoopla Peale sometimes indulged in to attract customers. The Academy was also determined to be democratic. Whereas the Philosophical Society drew its members from the elite (including 15 of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence), the Academy’s founders were local businessmen and immigrants drawn together by a single idea: “We are lovers of science.” They resolved that their organization would be “perpetually exclusive of political, religious and national partialities, antipathies, preventions and prejudices.” This was no doubt wishful thinking. As at most such institutions then, the Academy’s membership was entirely white and male, until the widow of a founder was admitted in 1841. Even brotherhood would prove elusive. (One founder was soon describing another as a “hot headed eccentric Irishman” and “some what crack brained.”)

But the founders were sincere in wanting to develop a proper American science for understanding and describing the riches of the still largely unexplored continent. “The time will arrive,” wrote Thomas Say, the intellectual force behind the Academy in its early years, “when we shall no longer be indebted to the men of foreign countries, for a knowledge of any of the products of our own soil, or for our opinions in science.” Say himself would become the father of American entomology, in his lifetime describing roughly 1,400 insects, including pests and pollinators of critical economic importance in agriculture.

Say would also become the first trained naturalist to visit the American West. As chief scientist on the Long Expedition of 1819-20 (see “What Is Out There?” American History, October 2010), he provided the first descriptions of many now beloved species, from the swift fox to the Lazuli bunting to a host of insects. At one point during the expedition, Say was seated with a Kansa chieftain, “in the presence of several hundred of his people assembled to view the arms, equipment, and appearance of the party,” when a darkling beetle scurried out from among onlookers’ feet. Diplomatic dignity wrestled momentarily with scientific passion. Then Say plunged after the beetle and impaled it on a pin, for which the astonished Kansa admiringly dubbed him a medicine man. Another of his discoveries, the mosquito species Anopheles quadrimaculatus, actually led to a major medical advance. Long after Say’s death, scientists identified A.quadrimaculatus as the chief carrier of “ague,” or malaria, a scourge that until then routinely killed Americans along the Gulf Coast and as far north as Boston and the Great Lakes.

Another early member of the Academy, Scottish immigrant Alexander Wilson, launched the scientific study of birds in America with his nine-volume American Ornithology, which was completed in 1814, a year after his death. Ironically, that connection with Wilson also caused the Academy to reject John James Audubon when he showed up 10 years later seeking support for what would become the most celebrated work of American natural history ever published.

Audubon was a colorful frontier character and no diplomat. At a meeting with George Ord, the quarrelsome, condescending president of the Academy, he promoted his own work by clumsily disparaging Wilson’s. Audubon didn’t realize that Ord had been Wilson’s closest friend and was his literary executor. “Incensed by the newcomer’s brash and tactless remarks, Ord rose to Wilson’s defense, challenging Audubon’s scientific credentials and integrity,” Robert Peck and Patricia Stroud write in A Glorious Enterprise, their definitive history of the Academy. “By the end of the meeting, it was clear that any possibility of the Academy supporting Audubon’s project had vanished.” Audubon had to turn to Europe to get Birds of America published.

A few years later, in 1838, the Academy was aboard when the U.S. Exploring Expedition, the nation’s first effort at global science, set sail. The four-year circumnavigation of the globe had strong backing from Secretary of War Joel Poinsett, an Academy member and plant collector who had brought his namesake, the poinsettia, from Mexico to the United States. The complement of nine “scientific gentlemen” on the U.S. Ex Ex (as it became known) included two Academy scientists and two corresponding members. The expedition mapped vast areas of the Pacific and discovered the frozen continent of Antarctica. The scientists also collected more than 60,000 plant and animal specimens.

This collection became the basis of a proposed new national museum endowed, as George Ord complained bitterly, by some “English fool, named Smithson.” Ord was enraged that the Smithson-backed group had “laid its grasping paws upon the precious collections” of the U.S. Ex Ex. In an 1842 letter, he predicted that his rivals’ plans for establishing a natural history museum in the nation’s capital would entail “an immense stir; a grand speechifycation, characterized by rant, fustian and nonsense; the baboons of literature and science will play their pranks for the amusement of the mob, and then the farce will end.” He was of course mistaken. The two institutions would often collaborate in the decades that followed. But ultimately the Smithsonian Institution would displace the Academy as the main home for the nation’s accumulating treasures.

The Academy’s most disturbing influence on American life came when a prominent member, Samuel G. Morton, claimed in the 1840s that blacks and whites originated as separate species and that this could be proven by measuring skull capacity. Morton, a Philadelphia Quaker and physician, was convinced that bigger skulls housed bigger brains with greater intellectual capacity and that the biggest brains naturally belonged to white people.

Morton eventually accumulated 1,000 human skulls from around the world, a collection his friends described as “the American Golgotha.” (The name of the hill on which Christ was crucified meant literally “place of the skull.”) He measured brain capacity by filling the inverted skulls with granules, a methodology considered remarkably objective and scientific for its time. He used white mustard seed at first, and to improve accuracy later switched to No. 8 shot.

By offering a “scientific basis” for prejudice, Morton handed ammunition to bigots amid the vicious racial politics preceding the Civil War. One Morton disciple, Josiah Clark Nott, an Alabama physician and slaveowner, distilled Morton’s research into lectures on what he called “niggerology.” Nott piously declared that he loathed slavery in the abstract. But, he argued, as a practical reality it was a public service, enabling members of a subhuman species to attain “their highest civilization.” He added, “the Negroes of the South are now…the most contented population of the earth.” Rather than distance himself from such twisted reasoning, Morton wrote of his “great pleasure and instruction” at the uses to which Nott put his findings.

When Morton died in 1851, a New York newspaper remarked that “probably no scientific man in America enjoyed a higher reputation among scholars throughout the world.” A century and a half later, the conclusions Morton drew from his skulls have been universally discredited. His most vociferous modern critic, the late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, denounced Morton as the father of scientific racism, driven by the urge to put “his folks on top, slaves on the bottom.” But other scientists still regard Morton as the founder of physical anthropology, the science of measuring variances among human groups.

The mid-19th century was the last time a naturalist’s scholarship could span the entire world. Not only were explorers from the Academy and other institutions going to new places and making great discoveries, but in those days the average educated layperson could understand what their work was all about. Professionalization would soon set in, confining scientists to ever more narrow specialties, often comprehensible only to a handful of like-minded experts.

Joseph Leidy, who arrived at the Academy in 1842, bridged both worlds. He was of the new breed, a professional scientist, but still managed to work on everything from parasites to dinosaurs. Leidy was the first to demonstrate that the parasitic disease trichinosis came from undercooking meat contaminated with roundworm larvae—and thus gets credit or blame for a century or so of overdone pork chops. He is also said to have been the first scientist to use a microscope to solve a murder, foreshadowing countless police procedurals and CSI episodes. The suspect in that case said that the blood on his shirt came from a chicken. He confessed after Leidy demonstrated that the red cells could not have come from a bird and were probably human.

Fossils are what really made Leidy famous. As collectors in the American West began sending him paleontological specimens, Leidy described a saber-toothed cat and a rhinoceros that had once roamed the Great Plains. His description in the 1850s of an ancient American camel helped encourage the War Department to create a U.S. Camel Corps, with animals imported from North Africa to transport equipment in the Southwest.

Leidy also demonstrated that horses had lived in America long before Spanish colonizers re-introduced them. (They disappeared the first time, he thought, because of climate change.) He “was discovering an entirely new world in the virgin fields of the American West,” write Peck and Stroud. “It was not possible to base his studies on those of European paleontologists because, according to the eminent scientist Henry Fairfield Osborn, ‘every specimen represented a new species or a new genus of a new family, and in some cases a new order.’”

Leidy and the Academy were the best available source of paleontological thinking when British sculptor Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins arrived in the United States in 1868. Hawkins had previously made concrete models of dinosaurs for London’s Crystal Palace. He liked to imagine what he called “the revivifying of the ancient world,” and at a party held inside the mold for one of his models, the guests sang, “The Jolly Old Beast / is not deceased / There’s life in him again.”

But in truth, Hawkins’ low, plodding model dinosaurs were about as likely to induce wonder as the average lizard. (You can still see them on display at a park in London’s Sydenham Hill neighborhood.) With Hadrosaurus foulkii, Hawkins had the opportunity to do it right. The scientific know-how came from Leidy. (He was assisted by Edward Drinker Cope, a young paleontologist who would later compete fiercely with Yale rival O.C. Marsh in the so-called bone wars to unearth the best Western dinosaur specimens.)

Hawkins mounted plaster casts of the Hadrosaurus bones, and where needed plaster reconstructions, on an iron armature. Because the fossil was missing its skull, the team modeled a replacement on the modern iguana, and painted it green. The finished skeleton, reassembled in two months of feverish work, reared overhead as if there were truly “life in him again” after 65 million years. Much of Hawkins’ working model is now lost, but its innovative approach to fossil specimens continues to influence the way museums around the world display dinosaurs.

Academy scientists conduct research today everywhere from Venezuela’s Orinoco Delta to Lake Hovsgol in northern Mongolia. These specialized studies rarely attract public attention. They are also badly funded: In 2006, on the brink of financial collapse, the Academy caused a flurry of protest when it sold off more than 18,000 mineral specimens to keep itself alive. But we ignore the need for ongoing research at our considerable peril. Two centuries ago, Academy naturalists helped shape the American republic and its ideas about its past. Their counterparts today have the power to shape our future.


Richard Conniff is a National Magazine Award winner for feature writing. His latest book is The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth.

Originally published in the August 2012 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.