What a cool place! This is the oldest natural history museum in North America, with original editions of seminal natural history publications, a shotgun used by the father of American ornithology, Alexander Wilson (collection methods were somewhat more rustic in the olden days), and a well-worn chair donated from Darwin’s own study at Down House. In the venerable rare book collection, for example, I got to see a “double-elephant folio” edition of Audubon’s birds, measuring maybe 2 by 3 feet in size, with exquisite hand-painted watercolors. Also saw specimens of Tiktaalik roseae, the recently discovered missing link between fishes and land vertebrates.
This was the nerve center of American natural history in the late 1700s through mid-1800s, pre-dating the American Museum of Natural History in New York and the Smithsonian Institution. Audubon was a member of the Academy, as were great naturalists of the day such as Joseph Leidy (described as “the last man who knew everything”, and an early supporter of Darwin), Thomas Say (“the father of American entomology”), and Joseph Banks (naturalist aboard Captain Cook’s voyage to Australia). Darwin himself was a corresponding member of the Academy. In the 20th century, Ernest Hemingway shipped many of the fruits of his Caribbean game-fishing exploits to the Academy’s museum and courted its president in hopes of being invited on an expedition to Africa.
But the prize for me (which gives me the excuse of posting it on this site) was a series of fossil specimens described by the original Natural Patriot himself, Thomas Jefferson. In between his various day jobs as Governor of Virginia, President of the United States, architect of the University of Virginia, agricultural innovator, and so on, Jefferson found time to publish the first paper in American paleontology, describing a collection of bones of the extinct giant ground sloth Megalonyx (which he originally took to be a giant cat, something along the lines of an African lion on steroids), found in a cave in West Virginia. In those days, the western 2/3 of the continent were largely uncharted wilderness and Jefferson continued to believe for several years that the Megalonyx, and mastodons whose remains he had also studied, might yet be found alive in the wild wild west. This was the pioneering paper:
Jefferson, Thomas. 1799. “A Memoir of the Discovery of certain Bone of a Quadruped of the Clawed Kind in the Western Parts of Virginia.” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 4, No. 30, pp. 246-260.
Looking at these actual bones that Jefferson himself touched, measured, and puzzled over in his study at Monticello gave me the same sort of hair-raising experience I sometimes get walking the campus of the College of William and Mary and imagining him in his college days haunting the same paths on his way to classes as a young man with so much history ahead of him. They don’t make ’em like him any more.