John Elliott Carter (1838-1922)

Portrait of J. E. Carter
John Elliott Carter
Photo courtesy of Christopher Nicholson

In 1902, along with six fellow Academy members, John Elliott Carter helped finance the purchase of ornithologist Rollo Beck’s important collection of 135 bird specimens from the Galapagos Islands. Carter was first nominated as member of the Academy in 1868 by two of the most prominent scientists of the day: Edward Drinker Cope and William Sansom Vaux, both of whom held active roles at the institution. 

Although the connection between Carter and these two seminal figures is not entirely clear, like Cope and Vaux, Carter was a Quaker. Carter, a member of the Germantown Friends Meeting, would marry Cope’s sister, Mary Anna, in January 1871, although she would die in late December of the same year. Carter had lost his first wife, Caroline Warder Cadbury, four years earlier. He would marry one final time, to Fannie Pim, in 1879. 

In the early part of 1901 (January and February), R. H. Beck collected birds on the Galapagos Islands that subsequently came to the Academy through the generosity of Academy benefactors, including John Elliott Carter. Beck was one of the greatest bird collectors of all times, with huge series of his specimens (most are seabirds or oceanic island specialists) now housed in all of the world’s great museums. His work in the Galapagos is particularly important, as the specimens are some of the few ever collected from the islands. Certainly none will ever be collected again from this vulnerable environment. At least 125 study skins, all endemic to the Galapagos Islands, make up this wonderful and unique collection. Perhaps the most widely known of the species Beck collected are the “Darwin’s” finches (genus Geospiza) but from a collection standpoint, the real jewels are specimens that now represent endangered species such as the Galapagos Penguin (Spheniscus mendiculus, ANSP 39643), Galapagos Hawk (Buteo galapagoensis, 39606-7), and the Galapagos Gull (Larus fuliginosus, 39622-3).

Galapagos Penguin
Galapagos Penguin
(Spheniscus mendiculus)
ANSP 39643
Galapagos Hawk specimen
Galapagos Hawk
(Buteo galapagoensis)
ANSP 39607
Lava Gull specimen
Lava Gull
(Larus fulginosus)
ANSP 39623

We can learn a great deal from a memoir of John Elliott Carter by George M. Warner and Stanley R. Yarnall, his close neighbors, which is in the collection of William Malandra, Carter’s great grandson. Much of what we know about Carter is drawn from family memoirs. After leaving school, Carter was apprenticed for four years at $50 per year to Charles Ellis, a well-known wholesale and retail druggist of the time. Simultaneously, he attended the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy, from which he graduated in l858, at the age of twenty. Although he was attracted to the study of medicine, he entered the employment of the firm of Carter & Scattergood, manufacturing chemists, shortly afterward becoming a member of the firm. He later made it into one the most prominent and successful Philadelphia manufacturing companies, with a national reputation. In the words of one of his relatives, Carter was a “tycoon” but apparently a thoughtful and gentle one.

Employees at the firm recalled that once the business of the day was dispatched, Carter’s custom was to draw elaborate geometrical figures, or to solve by algebra the binomial theorem or some similar mental exercise, on the backs of envelopes saved from the wastebasket. He also spent many hours patiently with his younger partners and assistants clearing up half-worked out problems in mechanics, in chemistry or in life itself.

His intellectual interests were chiefly scientific and he took keen enjoyment from the beauties of nature. For years he used his microscope, doing exquisite work in preparing and mounting specimens. His reading was wide and varied, and education to him was a life-long process. He regularly subscribed to and read a number of scientific journals, and, throughout his life, kept in touch with the progress of scientific thought. His ties to the Academy clearly enriched his life as much as he benefited the Academy.

Proud Decendants of John Elliott Carter

Judith Nicholson Asselin, Caroline Nicholson Asselin
Anne Carter Borton, Tamblyn Borton, Anthony Borton, Timothy Carter Borton, John Carter Borton, Jr., Mark Borton,
Kai Buchanon, Dylan Buchanon,
Esty Foster, III, Barbara Weston Foster,
Erica Gentry, Erin Gentry, Colin Gentry, Kaitlin Gentry,
Sheileen Nicholson Landry,
William Warren Malandra,
Megan Nicholson Marcinko, Sawyer Marcinko,
Andrew Nicholson Meade, Michael Nicholson Meade,
Robert Nicholson, Scott Nicholson, Russell Nicholson, Christopher Nicholson, Richard Nicholson, Katherine Nicholson, Christopher Cope Nicholson, Thomas Nicholson, Nathan Nicholson, Sasha Nicholson, Stephen Nicholson, Eric Nicholson, Neil Nicholson, James Nicholson, Carol Nicholson, Charles Nicholson, Juliet Nicholson, Mayah Nicholson, Micah Nicholson, David Nicholson, Christine Nicholson, Patricia Nicholson, Heather Nicholson, John T. Nicholson, Bryan Nicholson, Avery Nicholson, Bradley Nicholson, Daniel Nicholson, Celia Nicholson, Sonia Nicholson,
Kathleen Nicholson Paulmier, Carter Paulmier, Malia Paulmier,
Savanna Richie, Lucas Richie, Rebecca Richie,
Cynthia Terrell, Nathan Terrell, Nicole Terrell, Chelsea Terrell, Darqui Terrell,
and Rebecca Wallace