200 Years. 200 Stories. Story 154: “Titian Peale: Butterfly Preservation Hero ”

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photo of a Titian Peale collection box
One of the Titian Peale collection boxes. The hermetically sealed chamber is shown from the back. The specimens contained in this box are listed inside the back cover (right). The front cover is on the left.

Titian Peale: Butterfly Preservation Hero

Butterflies are incredibly delicate, difficult to catch, and a challenge to preserve over time. Titian Peale, a notable son of American naturalist Charles Willson Peale, was an enthusiastic Lepidoptera collector from a young age, when he started drawing and collecting butterflies and moths at his childhood home in Germantown. As an adult, Peale became a respected entomologist. After his election to Academy membership in 1816, he participated in several expeditions, including two Long Expeditions and the Wilkes Expedition.

Peale’s sustained fascination with these insects led him to this predicament: How can a collection of Lepidoptera best be preserved for future research without being visibly altered? His specimens were sensitive to light, pests, and humidity, so Peale had to find a way to protect his beloved butterflies from harm. He treated the specimens with camphor and heat and hermetically sealed them in shallow, glass-faced wooden boxes, which were lined with tinfoil. Peale’s invention, known as the Peale Box, fully protects the specimens while allowing a researcher to view them from above and below.

Peale donated his collection to the Academy. It became a beneficiary of Save America’s Treasures, a National Trust for Historic Preservation program that restored nationally significant historic sites and special collections across the country. Peale’s diverse collection of butterflies has been well-preserved thanks to the Peale Box. The collection contains the only surviving lepidopteran type specimen (the actual sample used as the basis of the original description of a new species) named by Academy founder Thomas Say! Most other type specimens of insects that Say described have been lost or destroyed.

Are you as mesmerized by Lepidoptera as Titian Peale was? Visit the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University’s Butterflies! exhibit to see species from Central and South America, East Africa, and Southeast Asia.

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