Rarest of the Rare: Stories Behind the Treasures at the Harvard Museum of Natural History

Overview

Where do you find Nabokov's butterflies, George Washington's pheasants, and the only stuffed bird remaining from the Lewis and Clark expedition? The vast collections of animals, minerals, and plants at the Harvard Museum of Natural History are among the oldest in the country, dating back to the 1700s. In the words of Edward O. Wilson, the museum stands as both "cabinet of wonder and temple of science." Its rich and unlikely history involves literary figures, creationists, millionaires, and visionary scientists ...

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Overview

Where do you find Nabokov's butterflies, George Washington's pheasants, and the only stuffed bird remaining from the Lewis and Clark expedition? The vast collections of animals, minerals, and plants at the Harvard Museum of Natural History are among the oldest in the country, dating back to the 1700s. In the words of Edward O. Wilson, the museum stands as both "cabinet of wonder and temple of science." Its rich and unlikely history involves literary figures, creationists, millionaires, and visionary scientists from Asa Gray to Stephen Jay Gould. Its mastodon skeleton — still on display — is even linked to one of the nineteenth century's most bizarre and notorious murders.

The Rarest of the Rare tells the fascinating stories behind the extinct butterflies, rare birds, lost plants, dazzling meteorites, and other scientific and historic specimens that fill the museum's halls. You'll learn about the painting that catches Audubon in a shameful lie, the sand dollar collected by Darwin during the voyage of the Beagle, and dozens of other treasures in this surprising, informative, and often amusing tour of the natural world.

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Editorial Reviews

Seattle Times
“A fascinating look at some of the specimens in Harvard’s natural history museum.”
Boston Globe
“The book is charming and curious--it creates an irresistible urge to return to the museum.”
Cincinnati Enquirer
“This look at an eclectic collection...is charming and beautifully photographed.”
Discover magazine
One of the 20 best science books of 2004.
Journal News
“Gorgeous...The picture of the armadillo rolled up in a perfect ball is worth the sticker price all by itself.”
Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Every specimen has a story, some of which involve murder, derring-do, luck and pluck. Great pictures and great reading.”
Parade Magazine
“A gorgeous gift book ... Artful photos and a lively text conjure beauty, science -- and mystery!”
San Jose Mercury News
“A wonderful account of where this and a lot of other weird stuff came from...its scientific and historical value.”
USA Today
“Pick spins short, sweet tales of scientists’ derring-do and wonder over the exuberance of nature.”
Booklist
Aided by Sloan's excellent photographs...this work is a beautiful showcase that will arrest the interest of every passing browser.
Publishers Weekly
Rather like a natural history museum, this book contains arresting visuals and intriguing facts but has a vaguely musty air about it. Pick, a staff writer for the Harvard Museum of Natural History, traces the growth of the institution and the accretion of its millions of animal, vegetable, fossil and mineral specimens, asserting the continuing relevance of collecting and studying whole organisms in this age of molecular biology. (As Harvard entomologist Edward O. Wilson writes in the introduction, "Biology could not have advanced without the collections of museums like this one.") The bulk of the book is devoted to photographs of flora and fauna (or rather, their taxidermied or fossilized remains), accompanied by matter-of-fact commentary about their biology or provenance. Stuffed birds, pickled turtle embryos and tapeworms taken from the intestinal tracts of "upper-crust Bostonians" share space with a haunting fossil butterfly and an awesome plesiosaur skull. Other relics, though, fail to impress: Vladimir Nabokov's collection of butterfly genitalia, for instance, probably needs to be seen in person. The most interesting sections are those that delve into the science behind the specimens, such as the mini-essays on exotic animals and the physics of blue coloration, but these, too, are cursory and rare. 95 color photos not seen by PW. Agent, Anne Edelstein. (Nov.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060537180
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 10/26/2004
  • Pages: 192
  • Product dimensions: 8.12 (w) x 9.12 (h) x 0.71 (d)

Meet the Author

Nancy Pick, a former journalist for the Baltimore Sun, is a staff writer for the Harvard Museum of Natural History. She lives in western Massachusetts with her husband, two sons, and two leopard geckos (Eublepharis macularius).

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First Chapter

The Rarest of the Rare
Stories Behind the Treasures at the Harvard Museum of Natural History

Natural History at Harvard

In nature's infinite book of secrecy,
A little I can read.
-- William Shakespeare

For anyone drawn to nature's infinite book, Harvard's natural history collections make excellent reading. The collections comprise some 21 million specimens -- animal, vegetable, and mineral -- from every imaginable part of the earth. Scientists devote lifetimes to their study, deciphering the secrets of species.

Most of Harvard's specimens reside in a sprawling redbrick Victorian edifice, five stories high and not without charm. Housed within is the Harvard Museum of Natural History, which presents the collections -- and scientific research based on them -- to the public. Permanent exhibitions include the famous Glass Flowers, thousands of animals from around the world, and a beautiful hall of minerals. And yet these galleries offer only a glimpse. For behind the scenes extends a complex of scientists' offices, research laboratories, and specimen storage areas. Past one door lies The Egg Room, with some thirty thousand glass-topped boxes containing birds' nests and eggs. Behind another door reside so many mollusk shells that no one has ever managed an exact count. One room yields the world's largest collection of ants; another holds hundreds of horns and tusks; still another reveals meteorites from the asteroid belt. The specimens -- most dried, tanned, or pickled in alcohol -- fill innumerable bottles, boxes, drawers, and cabinets. They are the world, distilled.

Scientists went to great lengths to obtain the specimens, often traveling to distant shores, amidst adventures and misadventures. The man who collected a rare tailed birdwing butterfly in Papua New Guinea was later eaten by cannibals. The botanist who discovered an exquisite Chinese lily nearly lost his leg, crushed in a rockslide in the remote mountains of Sichuan, the only place where the plant grew. The bones of a huge Kronosaurus, an ancient marine reptile, had to be dynamited out of Australian limestone by a man nicknamed The Maniac. Other specimens are notable for their collector's fame. Harvard has natural history artifacts from George Washington, Meriwether Lewis, John James Audubon, Henry David Thoreau, Charles Darwin, and Vladimir Nabokov, to name but a few.

Further, Harvard's collections are important for their history. The college was founded back in 1636 by members of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, just sixteen years after the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth. Aiming to turn out well-educated ministers, Harvard taught astronomy almost from the start -- fostering discussions of comets, the Copernican system, and discoveries made through early telescopes.2 Physics came next. After the medical school opened in 1782, the curriculum expanded to include chemistry, mineralogy, and biology. When the great naturalist Louis Agassiz joined the Harvard faculty in 1848, he galvanized the entire country with his vision of an American-based science to rival that of Europe.

Meanwhile, the race was on to discover, describe, and name new species. As intrepid travelers sent back finds from the far reaches of the globe, Harvard's natural history collections grew rich in type specimens -- those specimens chosen to represent new species. (Type specimens are considered so important that the British, during World War II, hid theirs in caves.) As Harvard's collections grew, so did the need for better storage and display. During the mid-nineteenth century, scientists shaped what had once been "cabinets" into formal research museums: the Botanical Museum (1858), the Museum of Comparative Zoology (1859), and the Mineralogical Museum (1891).

Gradually, evolutionary science was coming to the forefront. By 1900, Charles Darwin's theory had won wide acceptance by scientists, but many questions about the mechanisms of evolution remained. In the 1940s, Ernst Mayr helped to crack one of Darwin's major unsolved puzzles: How do species originate?3 During his years at Harvard, Mayr, who became one of the world's leading evolutionary biologists, promoted the usefulness of museum specimens in revealing the process of evolution.

Then came the 1950s, and the discovery of DNA's double helix. The study of museum specimens and "whole organisms" fell out of favor. Molecular biology -- genetics -- took center stage. The new vanguard dismissed naturalists as stamp collectors and natural history museums as old-fashioned and outmoded. Unexpectedly, with the 1980s came a dramatic turnabout. Led in part by Harvard's Edward O. Wilson, cutting-edge scientists once again began taking interest in the lives of plants and animals. Since that time, natural history museums have become key centers of biodiversity and ecology studies, with biologists searching for ways to slow the current great wave of extinction.

This chapter lays out some highlights of natural history collecting and research at Harvard, over its long history.

Curiosities and Other Early Collections

The philosophical apparatus. Astronomy came first, becoming part of Harvard's curriculum as early as 1640. Graduating ministers, it was thought, needed to be able to interpret comets and other heavenly phenomena for their commu- nities.4 In 1672, the college received what was likely its first scientific instrument: an English telescope, three and a half feet long, given by Connecticut colonial governor John Winthrop.

The sciences, at that time, were called natural philosophy. It followed, then, that scientific instruments were known as "the philosophical apparatus." Harvard's apparatus collection grew slowly until 1727, when Thomas Hollis, a wealthy and generous Englishman, donated five chests filled with equipment. Included were instruments for studying mechanics, hydrostatics, pneumatics, and optics.

Hollis also gave money for a professorship in "Mathematicks and Experimental Philosophy," the oldest endowed science professorship in the New World. In 1739, John Winthrop -- descendant of the governor -- became Hollis professor and Harvard's first important scientist. He ran the colony's first experimental physics laboratory, lecturing on electricity and Newton's laws. Following the terrible Lisbon earthquake of 1755, Winthrop gave two talks on seismology. By explaining earthquakes as natural phenomena, rather than manifestations of divine wrath, he drew the disapproval of more than a few members of the clergy.

The philosophical apparatus, kept in Harvard Hall, continued to grow. The college received an orrery, an instrument that, when turned by a crank, revealed the daily and annual motions of sun, moon, and Earth. In 1748, Francis Archibald donated a human skeleton. In 1758, Massachusetts statesman James Bowdoin gave a valuable microscope. In 1761, science professor John Winthrop set off on an important expedition to Newfoundland, to observe the transit of Venus across the sun. Harvard supplied him with state-of-the-art equipment: an octant, an excellent pendulum clock, and two telescopes -- refracting and reflecting. Despite the annoying swarms of insects, Winthrop and his two assistants managed to obtain good measurements.

The Rarest of the Rare
Stories Behind the Treasures at the Harvard Museum of Natural History
. Copyright © by Nancy Pick. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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