200 Years. 200 Stories. Story 166: “A Bitter Feud ”

« Lewis David von Schweinitz: The Botanist Bishop

Card Catalogs and Academy History »

illustration of story seas with two sailing ships
Frontispiece from Godman's Natural History illustrating the two ships in a stormy sea.

A Bitter Feud

A bit of competition is expected between academics in the same field, but the conflict between two early Academy members and physicians, Richard Harlan (1796–1843) and John Godman (1794–1830), was more than just a friendly rivalry. A bitter feud erupted between the two over the publication of their books on American mammals. Though Harlan was the first to publish, his Fauna Americana (1825) lacked illustration and can be characterized as “dry.” The following year, Godman published the first of three volumes of his more popular Natural History, which was illustrated and written in more accessible and engaging prose. Godman publicly accused Harlan of plagiarizing, asserting that 250 of Harlan’s 314 pages were “verbally and literally” taken from Anselme Gaëtan Desmarest’s Mammalogie. Harlan issued a public rebuttal and questioned Godman’s medical competence. The reputations of both men suffered, but Godman’s rebounded years later. Harlan’s reputation in Philadelphia never recovered. He later emigrated to France.

This rivalry between Harlan and Godman likely had deeper roots in philosophical disagreements. Godman, like many early Academy naturalists, followed the ideas of Alexander Wilson, believing that American nature was essentially distinct from that of Europe and that American naturalists were more than equal to the task of studying it. Harlan understood that while our flora and fauna had many distinctive qualities and that American naturalists were up to the task of studying it, his fellow naturalists should not disregard the contributions and opinions of their European colleagues. (There is also speculation that Godman was upset because Harlan scooped him by naming several new species Godman was studying.) Whatever the source of the animosity, there is no doubt that it was lasting. Godman’s book contains a frontispiece illustrating two ships in a stormy sea. One is riding the crest of the waves, while the other—unquestionably that of Richard Harlan—is sinking.

Intrigued by the larger-than-life characters and research behind this cutthroat competition? Learn more about one of Harlan’s other endeavors and Godman’s mammal research.

Plan your visit, check out our new exhibits, and find out about upcoming activities.
Discover the past and explore the future of the natural sciences in our online exhibits.
Make a difference, browse our programs, and get involved with the natural world.