A Brief History of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University
March 1, 2012
The history of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, the nation’s oldest natural history museum, mirrors the evolution of the relationship between the American people and the natural world. The Academy was founded when the United States hugged the Atlantic coastline, and Philadelphia was the cultural, commercial and scientific center of the new nation.
In early 19th-century Philadelphia, the collection and identification of natural specimens were popular activities. The New World, abundant with undiscovered plants and animals, provided a great deal of uncharted territory for anyone interested in exploring. In 1812, seven amateur naturalists formed a nucleus of resources with the hope of encouraging serious scholarly exchange as well as important scientific contributions to natural history. Initially meeting at one founder’s home, the founders created the Academy of Natural Sciences for “the encouragement and cultivation of the sciences and the advancement of useful learning.”
The Academy’s first home consisted of one room on the second floor of a house at Second and Race Streets. With eight books and a map of Switzerland, the group began a library, which currently holds hundreds of thousands of books, maps, manuscripts and artworks, and ranks among the world’s finest natural history libraries. Each founder also contributed a few specimens, initiating the Academy’s collections. Today those collections number more than 17 million specimens and include Thomas Jefferson's fossils, Lewis and Clark's plants, and many of the birds collected by John James Audubon.
Under the leadership of the new Academy, many new and developing disciplines put down their American roots—botany, entomology, geology, mineralogy, ichthyology, malacology, and paleontology. Early members included Thomas Say, a founder and "father” of both American entomology and conchology, Audubon, William Bartram, Alexander Wilson and Henry Muhlenberg. The Academy was the first American scientific organization to recognize the significance of Charles Darwin's research and elected him to associate membership in 1860.
Over the years, the Academy coordinated or participated in many explorations of uncharted territory, including Ferdinand Hayden’s expedition, which discovered what is now Yellowstone National Park and laid the foundation for the national park system. Through nearly 200 years of global exploration, which continues to this day, Academy researchers have studied living organisms and how they are affected by people. Their probing scientific inquiries and carefully documented research have propelled the Academy into the top echelons of research institutions.
The Academy opened its doors to the public in 1828. Here the mysteries of nature were revealed, its chaos organized and labeled in Latin and Greek. In 1868, the Academy astonished and delighted its audiences when it displayed the world’s first mounted dinosaur, Hadrosaurus foulkii, through the collaborative efforts of Academy scientist Dr. Joseph Leidy and artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins.
The collections expanded so rapidly that the Academy outgrew its building three times in 60 years. In 1876 its present home was built at 19th Street and Benjamin Franklin Parkway, now the heart of Philadelphia's cultural district. With the opening of the new building, the Academy became a modern museum with space for exhibitions and public lectures.
Some of the plants and animals in the Academy's collections found their way into magnificent, historically precise dioramas, many of which were constructed in the 1920s and 1930s. To capitalize on the educational potential of the dioramas, the Academy initiated classes for students in the School District of Philadelphia in 1932. In 1986 the Academy opened the acclaimed Discovering Dinosaurs exhibit, cementing its reputation in the region as "the Dinosaur Museum." This exhibit was renovated and expanded in 1998. Today the dinosaurs, dioramas, live butterfly garden and dozens of live animals attract some 200,000 visitors a year, including thousands of schoolchildren in the tri-state area. The Academy is building natural science literacy in the community through its education programs that appeal to all ages.
In 1948, long before water pollution and environmental degradation became topics of public concern, the Academy established what is now the Patrick Center for Environmental Research. This marked the beginning of a broadened research orientation, which includes applied research in aquatic ecosystems, as well as traditional systematics research. The center is named for Dr. Ruth Patrick (1907- ) who established the ecosystem-approach to determining water quality and won the National Medal of Science in 1996 for her achievement.
Today the Academy is an international natural history museum that pursues research and education focusing on the global environment and its diverse species. In 2011 the Academy became an affiliate of Drexel University, creating an internationally recognized powerhouse for discovery in the natural and environmental sciences.