Chicago Academy of Sciences

The Chicago Academy of Sciences was founded in 1857, making it one of the oldest scientific institutions in the United States. Our commitment to scientific study of local biodiversity and public engagement can be traced back to our founding.

The Chicago Academy of Sciences was founded by nature aficionados and amateur scientists seeking a space where they could study and share the specimens they collected. It was citizen science in action before the term was even invented! In addition to being the first private scientific museum founded in Chicago, the Academy became Chicago’s first public museum when it opened its doors to all visitors in 1869. This action would shape the institution’s educational focus and commitment as a community museum.

Under the guidance of early naturalists such as Robert Kennicott and William Stimpson, the Academy’s scientific collection grew exponentially in both size and importance. In fact, by 1870 the Academy had the fourth largest natural history museum collection in the entire nation.

The Great Fire of 1871 devastated both the city of Chicago and the Academy. The Academy’s building and holdings were decimated, including materials housed in a special “fireproof” vault. Despite this heavy blow, the Academy’s naturalists and scientists began rebuilding the collection under the direction of Academy Director and malacologist William Stimpson, Academy President (and one of the original founders) Dr. Edmund Andrews, and Academy Secretary Dr. Jacob W. Velie.

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The Chicago Academy of Sciences’ search for a new, more permanent home was realized with an offer from Chicago pioneer and businessman Matthew Laflin in 1892. Laflin offered to provide 75% of the funds towards the construction of a new building in Lincoln Park, while the remaining 25% came from the Lincoln Park Board of Commissioners. The cornerstone of the building was laid on October 10, 1893, and the building itself, known as the Matthew Laflin Memorial Building, officially opened on October 31, 1894.

For 100 years, the Laflin Building was the home of the Academy. There, natural history sprang to life through richly detailed dioramas filled with local flora and fauna. Public lectures and an accessible museum collection were staples of the flourishing Academy. In its new home, the collection was not only rebuilt, but became the definitive vehicle to study the natural history of Chicago and the region. It also became an invaluable resources for area educators.

As the 20th Century came to a close, the Chicago Academy of Sciences began initiating plans to expand the Laflin Building and to provide more room for exhibitions, collections storage, and office space. At the same time, the Lincoln Park Zoo also began looking to expand their operations. The Chicago Park District offered the Academy the opportunity to build a new museum building on the site of the Park District’s North Shops Maintenance Facilities in exchange for transferring the Academy’s Laflin Building to the Lincoln Park Zoo. In 1997, the Academy broke ground for its new building in Lincoln Park. In recognition of a significant donation given to the Academy by Dick and Peggy Notebaert, the building was named the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum.

Chicago’s explosion of urban growth at this time ground away the natural landscape and local flora and fauna, making it easy for residents to lose their connection to nature. People were starving for an authentic connection to the natural world and a place in our urban area where they could experience the sights, sounds, and smells of nature. The official opening of the Academy’s Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum on October 23, 1999, filled this void. Known for its iconic Judy Istock Butterfly Haven and providing more hands-on science instruction than any other museum in Chicago, the Nature Museum has become one of the city’s most attended institutions. The Nature Museum has given visitors the opportunity to create an authentic connection to nature, and has provided the Academy with a new opportunity to build on its legacy of hands-on science education, scientific research, and citizen/community science.

Our Work

The Chicago Academy of Sciences is more than a historical building. It is our guiding star and the core institution under which our museum building operates. Everything we do, from our conservation work to our education outreach, is done in support of the Academy’s mission. Explore more of our ongoing work below.

Notable People

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Elizabeth Emerson Atwater, a noted naturalist and collector, willed her collection to the Chicago Academy of Sciences. These items, some thirty boxes of plants, shells, minerals and cultural artifacts, remain a part of the Academy’s collection to this day.

Atwater developed her interest in botany while attending boarding school in Troy, New York where the study of plants was part of the standard curriculum since it was an activity that a “proper” lady could take with her wherever she went. She married Samuel T. Atwater in 1839 and in 1856 the couple moved to Chicago, where she connected with the Chicago Academy of Sciences.

She deposited most of her collection at that time with the Academy for safe keeping at the urging of Academy director Dr. William Stimpson, but unfortunately her entire collection was destroyed, along with the rest of the Academy’s holdings, during the Great Chicago Fire in 1871.

Although her health did not allow her to travel extensively, she personally collected on all of her trips and her friends abroad sent her items as well. She and her husband traveled to California regularly and on one particular trip they stopped in Yellowstone National Park. She collected 2,000 specimens on this journey, one of which was later named as a new species of lichen, Bryum atwateriae.

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William J. Beecher, PhD, a visionary science educator and influential ornithologist, was director of the Chicago Academy of Sciences from 1958-1983. He revamped the museum’s exhibition spaces to be more inviting and informative. Beecher was also active in the community promoting practices that would help reduce the number of bird deaths due to window collisions, such as dimming the lights in downtown buildings during migration periods. He even invented his own photographic equipment, like the binocular camera, to capture better photographs during his birding expeditions.

Perhaps his greatest legacy for the Academy was his passionate commitment to develop educational programming to encourage budding zoologists. He implemented a “Science Seminar and Workshop Program” in 1959 that created science clubs in the fields of astronomy, biology, geology, microscopy, ornithology and ultimately herpetology and chemistry. The target audience for these clubs was high school children and teachers, but it reached a more diverse audience due to the quality of the lecturers and the enthusiasm of the club members. This effort morphed into the Chicago Junior Academy of Sciences in the mid-1960s. The Junior Academy provided not only scientific instruction for high school students, but specific, hands-on employment and experience at the museum where they learned about museum operations, exhibit design and taxidermy.

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Motivated by his experience studying and working at the Smithsonian Institution, Robert Kennicott sought to establish Midwest-based natural history organizations that would develop similar reputations in the Midwest. In 1857, he realized his dream when he co-founded the Chicago Academy of Sciences and was appointed director (president). He simultaneously worked toward establishing a museum of natural science at Northwestern University.

Kennicott, an avid naturalist and adventurer, studied ornithology (birds), mammalogy (mammals), herpetology (reptiles and amphibians), and ichthyology (fish) and collected specimens across North America at a time when Chicago was the western-most edge of developed areas in the U.S.

In 1859, Kennicott embarked on a three-year exploration of the Arctic North America. Later, in 1865 he set out on an expedition to explore the possibility of an overland route to Europe via Alaska and Siberia for the Western Union Telegraph Company, which provided the opportunity to collect specimens for the Smithsonian and the Academy. It turned out to be his last trip; Kennicott died on May 12, 1866. In another tragic twist of fate, the specimens that Kennicott collected for the Academy were destroyed by the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 with the rest of the Academy’s museum collections. Today, the Academy still has specimens collected by Kennicott, obtained through transfers from the Smithsonian and from specimens originally deposited with Northwestern and transferred later to the Academy.

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Herman Silas Pepoon’s detailed record of the plant species found in the Chicago region, An Annotated Flora of the Chicago Area (1927), was the first local identification source for plants published by the Academy in almost 40 years. Pepoon, a physician, teacher, botanist, ecologist, and conservationist devoted his career to studying the plants and lands in Illinois and the Midwest.

After beginning his career as a practicing physician and serving as the Fulton County Fish Warden, he moved to the Chicago area in 1892 to take a position as a teacher and school physician at Lakeview High School.In addition to his teaching, Pepoon spent much of his free time exploring the Illinois landscape. He recorded all of the plant species that he encountered on his treks, keeping detailed maps and records, including drawings and photographs. Many of these are now housed within the manuscript collection in the Academy’s archives.

In 1909, he began teaching botanical classes for young people and local teachers at the Academy. He also led field trips and gave public lectures.

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William Stimpson, PhD, was a noted malacologist and naturalist who lived during the 1800s and was a powerful force for obtaining collections and developing the scientific reputation of the Academy.

He led expeditions along the eastern coastline with funding from the Academy, including one to Florida with J.W. Velie, from which the Academy received all of the collected specimens. Tragically, the Academy’s entire museum collection, including Stimpson’s ongoing research for twenty years, was destroyed during the Great Chicago Fire in 1871. Stimpson’s resolve helped rebuild the institution and its scientific collections.

During his career, he studied with well-known malacologists William G. Binney at the Boston Society of Natural History and Louis Agassiz at Harvard University. In 1852, Stimpson was appointed as naturalist/zoologist with the North Pacific Exploring and Surveying Expedition and spent four years collecting thousands of mollusk and gastropod specimens throughout the North Pacific, including Japan, the Bering Strait, and Hong Kong. He kept notes and personal letters from the expedition, which are held in the Academy’s archives, that include descriptions and drawings of some of the specimens and sites he encountered.

Upon his return, he became the head of the Department of Invertebrates at the Smithsonian Institution, and began the process of arranging and describing his collection. In 1865 a good friend, Robert Kennicott, asked Stimpson to take over his duties at the Chicago Academy of Sciences while he was on an expedition. Stimpson accepted and became the curator and secretary of the Academy until November 1866 when he was elected to fill the position of director upon the death of his friend.

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