By Carolyn Belardo
When they weren’t performing religious duties, these ministers, priests and missionaries were busy catching insects, hunting birds, scooping snails, and writing books about the new species they discovered.
Their names don’t roll off the tongue like, say, Gregor Mendel, the Augustinian friar whose novel pea patch set the stage for the science of genetics. But they contributed plenty to the understanding of the natural world, and now their scientific feats are being recognized in an exhibit that coincides with Pope Francis’ visit to Philadelphia and the World Meeting of Families.
The Academy will present The Clergy and the Academy’s Collections starting Monday, Aug. 31, in the Library Gallery. The exhibit can be seen weekdays through Oct. 23, with extended hours until 9 p.m. on Tuesday and Wednesday, Sept. 22 and 23. The entire museum will be open until 9 p.m. those two days as well. The exhibit is free with regular admission.
Since its founding in 1812, the Academy has been enriched by the work of members of the clergy active in the Catholic, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Quaker, Jewish, and Moravian communities.
“Some people may be surprised to know that the Academy, the nation’s oldest natural history museum, had a connection to such religious activity,” said the exhibit curator and Academy entomologist Greg Cowper. “Just as St. Francis of Assisi is known as the patron saint of animals and ecology, the Academy advances these same principles through research, education, and public engagement in biodiversity and environmental science.”
The Clergy and the Academy’s Collections showcases the plant and animal specimens, objects, books, and archival materials that are the fruit of these “clergy naturalists” so closely intertwined with the institution’s history. All the items are from the Academy’s research collection of 18 million specimens, the library’s more than 250,000 titles, and the archives collection of more than a million items spanning four centuries.
There’s the specimen of Bachman’s warbler, Vermivora bachmanii, that John James Audubon painted for his The Birds of America (1827–1838). The bird, now extinct, was collected by Lutheran minister and naturalist John Bachman (1790–1874), who also collaborated with Audubon to produce Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America.
There are mollusks, fish, birds, and reptiles given to the Academy, along with hundreds of additional specimens, by the French teacher Brother Nicéforo María Antoine Rouhaire (1888–1980). More than 100 animals and plants have been named in his honor.
The grandfather of the first president of Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa., Lutheran minister and botanist Gotthilf Heinrich Ernst Muhlenberg (1753–1815), discovered the bog turtle. It was named in his honor and a specimen of Glyptemys muhlenbergii will be on display.
And there is a gorilla skull collected by Presbyterian minister and pioneer missionary Robert Hamill Nassau (1835–1921); spiders collected by Presbyterian minister Henry Christopher McCook (1837–1911), a vice-president of the Academy; plants, butterflies and more.
Rare books on display include A Catalogue of Insects of Pennsylvania (1806) the first work about insects in the U.S. It was written by Lutheran minister Frederick Valentine Melsheimer (1782–1873).
To purchase general museum tickets at a discount and in advance, visit ansp.org.