200 Years. 200 Stories. Story 13: “Old Curious ”

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illustration of Thomas Nuttall
Thomas Nuttall

Old Curious

In Two Years Before the Mast (1840), Richard Henry Dana Jr. describes his years at sea from 1834 to 1836. He encounters “the last person [he] should have expected to see on the Coast of California...he was strolling about San Diego beach, in a sailors pea-jacket, with a wide straw hat, and barefooted, with his trousers rolled up to his knees.”

Dana's shipmates in the brig Pilgrim didn’t know what to make of this gentleman. They “called him 'Old Curious,' from his zeal for curiosities.” In fact, they wondered why a gentleman “should come to such a place as California to pick up shells and stones.”

“Old Curious” turned out to be Academy member Thomas Nuttall, one of the most important naturalists of the day and a contributor to the Academy's collections. Nuttall was an English national who had spent most of his adult years in Philadelphia, at Harvard, or on one of his many travels throughout the United States. When Dana encountered him in California, Nuttall was returning from an expedition, which had taken him across the continent to the Pacific Northwest, Hawaii, and California.

The Ewell Sale Stewart Library and Archives of the Academy of Natural Sciences houses many rare, beautiful, and important works on the natural sciences. Access these images through the Art Collections Guide.

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