A Glorious Enterprise: The Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia and the Making of American Science

A Glorious Enterprise: The Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia and the Making of American Science

by Robert McCracken Peck, Patricia Tyson Stroud, Rosamond Purcell

Founded in 1812, the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia stands today as the oldest natural history museum in the Western hemisphere. Early expeditions organized at the Academy were of central importance to the exploration of America's western wilderness, and the plant and animal specimens that were brought back formed the foundation of a collection that


Founded in 1812, the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia stands today as the oldest natural history museum in the Western hemisphere. Early expeditions organized at the Academy were of central importance to the exploration of America's western wilderness, and the plant and animal specimens that were brought back formed the foundation of a collection that today contains some eighteen million items. What began as a small gathering of devoted amateurs has grown into a vibrant international center for scientific education and research.

A Glorious Enterprise, the first complete history of the Academy, tells the story of the brilliant and passionate men and women who endeavored to acquire and disseminate knowledge of the natural world. Thomas Jefferson, John James Audubon, Robert Peary, Ernest Hemingway, and James Bond are just a few of the colorful Academy associates profiled in this lively narrative. Naturalist and historian Robert McCracken Peck and historical biographer Patricia Tyson Stroud take readers behind the scenes of the Academy, recounting the signal moments and achievements that shaped its first two hundred years—from its landmark discoveries in North America and around the world, through the construction of its famed dioramas in the 1930s, to the pioneering work of Academy scientists in water pollution and conservation long before these were topics of popular concern. The book is richly illustrated throughout with hundreds of archival images and stunningly original works by acclaimed photographer Rosamond Purcell that cast specimens from the Academy's collections in a new light.

Like Academy members on a quest for wondrous specimens, lovers of the sciences, American history, museums, and libraries will want to add A Glorious Enterprise to their collections. Filled with lively anecdotes, captivating biographical details, and fascinating facts, this beautiful and enlightening history will be treasured for years to come.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"To leaf through A Glorious Enterprise is to see history unfold. Two hundred years in the making, this beautiful book is a paean to the Western Hemisphere's oldest natural history museum—the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia—and the passionate men and women who shaped its reputation. Like a sophisticated cabinet of curiosities, the tome brims with treasures illustrating the museum's 18-million-piece collection."—Audubon

"A book to remember. . . . To wander through A Glorious Enterprise is to absorb the nineteenth century's passion for botany and zoology; the twentieth century's mania for exploration of distant, difficult or desolate places; and present-day preoccupations. . . . All of these tales are fascinating, but the book's true fascination comes in its color photographs and illustrations, scores of them."—Cornelia Dean, New York Times

"A handsome volume that should be in all serious collections on the history of the natural sciences."—Library Journal

"Magnificent in both its scope and its ambitious physicality, A Glorious Enterprise is a fascinating miniature museum in and of itself, exploring the cultural history of natural history with equal parts rigor and romanticism—the hallmark of great science."—Maria Popova, Brain Pickings

"A fascinating history, lavishly illustrated, of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, America's earliest scientific institution. The book's eighteen chapters offer not a single narrative, but a set of panels in which are figured episodes and topics that carry us from the beginning of the nineteenth century up to the present. For those who do not already know the Academy, A Glorious Enterprise should prompt a visit to the displays and library of this extraordinary home of scientific research."—Charles Gillispie, Professor Emeritus of the History of Science, Princeton University

Product Details

University of Pennsylvania Press, Inc.
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
9.90(w) x 12.30(h) x 1.80(d)

Read an Excerpt


A Glorious Enterprise is a book about the extraordinary people who conceived, built, and continue to shape America's oldest continuously operating natural history museum. The title might also describe the creation of the book itself, for this has been a project many years in the making and has allowed its authors an opportunity to explore one of the world's great centers for scientific research.

Surprisingly, except for a short, anecdotal account published at the time of the Academy's centennial and a smattering of articles and book chapters written over time, there has never been a formal history of the venerable institution where so many fields of natural science were given their start in America. The challenge and opportunity to tell such a story was at once daunting and exhilarating.

The history of the world, wrote Thomas Carlyle, is but the biography of great men. The same can be said for an institution. During its two centuries of growth, the Academy of Natural Sciences has had more than its share of brilliant, quirky, courageous, genial (and not so genial), heroic, funny, insightful, and generally intriguing characters at its core. Collectively, these men and women have pioneered the study of natural science in America, amassed some eighteen million specimens, and created one of the greatest natural history libraries in the world. In pursuing their individual and collective passions, they have explored the planet, risked life and limb, and shared their findings with countless millions of people. This is the story we tell.

Having coedited four exhibition catalogues and the Academy's members' magazine Frontiers from 1979 to 1982, we felt that our research and writing styles were sufficiently complementary to work together as coauthors of this book. Our independent publications, including nine biographies and dozens of articles on people associated with the Academy or natural history in America, gave us a working background for the history we had long wanted to write. The Academy's bicentennial seemed the ideal occasion to produce a comprehensive history—not only for internal use, but to share with the world at large. So, with the blessing of the Academy's administration, we commenced the active work of gathering information and structuring our narrative.

While many authors come to their subjects late, we have known the Academy from the inside out for almost one-sixth of its existence. For much of that time we have been active participants in one part or another of its many-faceted operations. This firsthand experience helped us appreciate and interpret the copious amount of information we gleaned from the Academy's archives and from the living memories of the members, volunteers, and staff who generously shared their stories for this project. All were essential in writing this book.

We divided the chapters evenly, allowing each of us to pursue in depth particular themes, time periods, and personalities. As each chapter took shape, we exchanged our drafts, working closely to flesh out and refine them in ways that would ensure their accuracy and interest. We wanted each chapter to be able to stand alone but also fit well with the others in advancing the story as a whole. After our drafts were refined and polished, we sent them to internal and external experts for vetting before submitting them to the University of Pennsylvania Press for a professional peer review.

The book is comprehensive but by no means exhaustive. Many people whose contributions to the Academy and to science were as significant as those we included, for one reason or another did not make it into the pages of A Glorious Enterprise. For some, we simply couldn't find enough information about them. For others, we decided that their stories were too similar to ones we were telling elsewhere. In all cases, we focused on people who we believe best exemplify the spirit of the Academy and the times in which they lived. Sometimes, in lieu of full coverage, we augmented our narrative with notes that give depth and breadth to the story. Names, dates, and explanations that did not fit naturally into the text, but that we considered too important to omit, found their way into the notes. Similarly, we relegated some of our research—the names of presidents, trustees, and Academy medalists—to the back of the book. We also included a time line that provides a quick overview of the events described in more detail in the text.

To give the book a strong visual dimension, we combined historical photographs and other illustrations from the Academy's archives and library and other sources with contemporary photographs that capture the scope of the Academy's remarkable collections. For this, we were fortunate to secure the enthusiastic participation of Rosamond Purcell, whose three decades of work in natural history collections around the world has established her as the dean of natural-object, natural-light photographers. During three weeklong visits, she applied her unique vision to hundreds of specimens drawn from every part of the museum, creating masterful images that both record the subjects as they are and suggest the many layers of interpretation that they have and will continue to receive. In addition to featuring her photographs within the chapters, we have used the pages between chapters to highlight others that offer unexpected views of selected items from the Academy's collections.

We hope that A Glorious Enterprise will serve as a balanced and accurate beginning on which future historians will continue to build as the Academy flourishes in its third century and in its new affiliation with Drexel University. It would not have been possible to write it without a great deal of help from many, many people. While we reserve our detailed acknowledgments for that section of the book, we want to recognize three individuals here.

Eileen Mathias, reference librarian of the Academy, shared much useful information, based on her many years of work at the Academy. More important, she served as our illustration guru, scanning, labeling, and organizing the more than three hundred images we culled from the archives for reproduction in this book. There is no doubt that without her countless hours of hard work, this publication would be far less glorious than it is.

Clare Flemming, the Brooke Dolan Archivist of the Academy, was always cheerful and professional in her responses to our endless requests, which made working in the archives as productive as it was pleasant. To Clare and all of the Academy archivists and librarians who amassed and organized the Academy's irreplaceable records over the years, we are extremely grateful.

Finally, we wish to acknowledge the generous patron who made publishing this book possible. The intellectual, emotional, and financial support provided by Robert L. McNeil Jr. was critical to the book's existence. We had hoped to share with him the first copy of A Glorious Enterprise. Instead we can only thank him for the confidence he put in us and hope that the book we have written—the last of many he supported during his philanthropic life—is one he would have enjoyed. Bob felt strongly that an institution with as long and distinguished a history as the Academy of Natural Sciences deserves a book worthy of its accomplishments. We have tried our best to create such a book.

Meet the Author

Robert McCracken Peck is Senior Fellow and Curator of Art and Artifacts at the Academy of Natural Sciences. He is the author of numerous books and articles, including Land of the Eagle: A Natural History of North America, A Celebration of Birds: The Life and Art of Louis Agassiz Fuertes, Headhunters and Hummingbirds: An Expedition into Ecuador, and All in the Bones: A Biography of Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins (with Valerie Bramwell). Patricia Tyson Stroud is an independent scholar who lives in Wayne, Pennsylvania, and East Blue Hill, Maine. She is the author of the award-winning books The Emperor of Nature: Charles-Lucien Bonaparte and His World and The Man Who Had Been King: The American Exile of Napoleon's Brother Joseph as well as Thomas Say: New World Naturalist, all published by the University of Pennsylvania Press. Rosamond Purcell has exhibited internationally, and her work has been featured in Smithsonian, National Geographic, and Slate. Her books include Swift as a Shadow: Extinction and Endangered Animals, Owls Head: On the Nature of Lost Things, and Illuminations: A Bestiary (with Stephen Jay Gould).

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