200 Years. 200 Stories. Story 155: “Natural History at Home ”

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protrait of Witmer Stone
Witmer Stone with the Otto Hermann Medal he received from the Hungarian Ornithological Society in 1931. Academy Archives Coll. no. 457.

Natural History at Home

What would happen if you used only cayenne pepper to preserve bird specimens? Or Methylic alcohol to preserve reptiles and fishes? Witmer Stone (1866-1939) could tell you that the results would be disastrous—and often very smelly. A prominent scientist who served as a curator, director, and vice president of the Academy, Stone got his start in natural history long before he officially joined the Academy in 1891. When he was fourteen, he, his brother, and his friends, future University of Pennsylvania Professor of Mineralogy and Geology Amos P. Brown and future Academy Curator of Plants Stewardson Brown, spent their time searching for specimens near their Germantown and Wayne homes.

Encouraged by relatives interested in the natural sciences, Stone began his collections by gathering bird specimens. His only guide was “an ancient pamphlet on taxidermy which considered only the mounting of birds,” and cayenne pepper was the single preservative he was “allowed” to employ. After a summer away from home, he returned to find only the remaining hemp and wires he had used to stuff his birds along with some of their feathers. But this failed effort didn’t dampen his spirit. With help from his friends, Stone turned a room in his home into a museum filled with bird and mammal skins, jars of reptiles and fishes, insects, dried plants, minerals, and more. Unfortunately any specimens he preserved in cheap methylic alcohol spoiled, wrote Stone: “The highly odoriferous collection had to be surreptitiously carried down through the house and disposed of over the back fence.”

After doing some research on collection and preservation and adding more powerful preservatives, Stone and the gang eventually preserved some specimens successfully. They kept up their work until they entered college to pursue careers in the sciences. Read more about Stone’s boyhood adventures.

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