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The Work of William Stimpson

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Tags: william stimpson, Chicago Academy of Sciences, history, founders

Created: 2/10/2015      Updated: 8/2/2016

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Although February 14 is recognized as Valentine’s Day, it’s a special day to the Nature Museum for another reason. It’s also the birthday of William Stimpson, a major force in the creation and establishment of the Chicago Academy of Sciences.

William Stimpson

Born on February 14, 1832 in Boston, Stimpson seems to have been born with a love of nature. By the age of 14, he’d begun independently exploring geology and invertebrates. Despite this love of the natural world, Stimpson found himself pushed toward engineering by his father who believed there was no money to be had in the scientific field. While Stimpson begrudgingly obeyed his wishes for a couple of years, by 1850 he was studying under the prodigious biologist/geologist Louis Agassiz at Cambridge. Two years later, he was appointed naturalist of the North Pacific Exploring Expedition. He was only 20 years old. He remained with the Expedition for four years, collecting 5,300 specimens and making special notes and drawings of over 3,000 specimens. You can read his report on the crustacea collected during the expedition here.

Nautilus drawn by William Stimpson
William Stimpson, Nautilus Drawing, US Pacific Expedition, Aug 14, 1853
 

Upon his return, he began studying at the Smithsonian, later becoming the head of the invertebrates department. It was here where he met Robert Kennicott, the naturalist who’d begun to make a name for himself by cataloging the fauna of his home state of Illinois. In 1865, Stimpson was widely recognized as the leading American authority on aquatic invertebrates. It was at this time that his old pal Robert Kennicott called on him to join the Chicago Academy of Sciences.

Kennicott was about to leave on expedition to Alaska and appointed Stimpson to take his place as Curator of the Academy, as well as Academy Secretary. Stimpson not only brought a new energy to this role, he also brought much of the collection he built during the course of his own personal research, as well as what he collected while with the Smithsonian. When Kennicott died while on expedition, Stimpson was elected to take his place as Director of the Academy. Through Stimpson’s leadership, the Academy’s collection grew to be the fourth largest in the country, with only the Smithsonian’s collection as its rival in importance. Sadly, it was lost during the Great Chicago Fire – a loss that Stimpson never fully recovered from.

Stimpson died of tuberculosis just nine months after the Great Fire. Although he had been working to rebuild the collection, he was in poor health, and the loss of his life’s work weighed on him heavily. Despite the incredible loss, Stimpson never regretted his decision to join the Academy. In a letter to his secretary he said:

But had I lost twice as much, I shall never regret coming to Chicago, for I have found there noble and generous friends, not only to myself, but friends to science and such as no other city in America can boast; and of more value to me than worldly possessions will be the memory of the friendly experiences I have had with yourself and the other trustees and the friends of the Academy, while we together built up a monument which, though now leveled with the dust, will long live in scientific history.

William Stimpson

Sources:

Josiah Seymour Currey, Chicago: Its History and Its Builders…: 157
Alfred Goldsborough Mayer, “Biographical Memoir of William Stimpson”, Biographical Memoirs of the National Academy of Sciences: 419-433
Special Publication – Chicago Academy of Sciences, Volumes 1 & 2
“William Stimpson”, Spencer Baird and Icthyology at the Smithsonian


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