One hundred seventy-nine years ago today, one of the most important figures in the history of the Chicago Academy of Sciences and its Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum was born — Robert Kennicott. His work lives on through the Nature Museum, but did you know that even before the birth of the Academy, his work helped naturalists and biologists better understand the zoology of Illinois as a whole?
Robert was born to Dr. John and Mary Kennicott in New Orleans on November 13, 1835. The family moved to Illinois while Robert was still an infant, and settled in an area that would later become Glenview. Dr. Kennicott dubbed their home “The Grove,” landscaping the property with walks, shrubbery and flowers. His father’s love of horticulture and the outdoors undoubtedly had a profound impact on Robert. So much so that in the winter of 1852, Robert traveled to Cleveland to study under Dr. J.P. Kirtland, a naturalist and co-founder of what would become the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.
In 1853, Robert returned home and began building and categorizing his collections, including fishes and reptiles native to northern Illinois. In the summer of 1855, at the age of 19, the opportunity arose to catalog the wildlife of Illinois on an even larger scale. The Illinois Central Railroad had just completed a track that ran from Chicago south to Cairo. In order to help publicize the wealth of the plant and animal life that ran along this new route, Illinois Central approached the State Agricultural Society in hopes of creating a preliminary survey of the state’s natural resources. Participants in the study would be able to collect along the route, disembarking and embarking on any train they wanted. The Agricultural Society would just have to train the would-be researchers in the ways of natural history collecting. Robert’s father, John, was the Society’s secretary and recommended Robert for the job.
He left for Southern Illinois on May 30, 1855 and worked on the project, hopping from train to train, for three months. Robert had hoped to make a compete catalog of the state’s zoology, and viewed this assignment as just first step towards that goal. Kennicott’s efforts did have a lasting impact. In late 1855, the Illinois State Agricultural Society published his findings as the first “Catalogue of Animals Observed in Cook County, Illinois” (even though the animals had primarily been observed in the southern part of the state). You can find his original study, and read it, here.
Sources:William Mullen, “A Dream Deferred,” SUNDAY The Chicago Tribune Magazine, June 14, 1987
Ronald S. Vasile, “The Early Career of Robert Kennicott, Illinois’ Pioneering Naturalist,” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, vol. 87 (1994): 150-70