By Christine Sellers
Explorer, adventurer, historian, photographer, writer, documentary film narrator, lecturer, collector, and curator. Throughout his four-decade career at the Academy Robert Peck has had many descriptions and worn many hats.
Peck has travelled the world to document the field research of Academy scientists and to pursue his own studies on a wide range of subjects. These have included studying, photographing, and writing about the lives of nomadic herders in Mongolia, as well as retracing the exploratory travels of William Bartram, John James Audubon, Henry David Thoreau, and other early naturalists.
His articles and books have resurrected the lives of British sculptor and artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, American bird painter Louis Agassiz Fuertes, and, most recently, British poet and artist Edward Lear. His next book, The Natural History of Edward Lear, with a foreword by Sir David Attenborough, will be published by David R. Godine in October.
One of his crowning achievements is the first complete history of the Academy, which he co-authored with Patricia Tyson Stroud in 2012 to help document the institution’s bicentennial. With beautiful photographs by Rosamond Purcell, A Glorious Enterprise: The Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia and the Making of Science, is a page-turner.
The Academy awarded Peck the Richard Hopper Day Medal for in interpreting natural science and making it accessible to the public, and last year the Garden Club of America awarded him the Sarah Chapman Francis Medal for outstanding contributions in environmental writing.
To celebrate Peck’s 40th anniversary at the Academy, we asked him about his career and his plans for the future.
What prompted your interest in the natural sciences, and what led you to the Academy?
I grew up in a family that was heavily immersed in natural history. I spent much of my childhood outdoors exploring the natural world, so it was a subject always very close to my heart.
What appeals to you about presenting scientific research through creative mediums like writing and photography?
What first attracts many of us to nature is its breathtaking beauty. Photographing and writing about it—in whatever field we are drawn to—gives us all an opportunity to see it closely and share it with others who might not have that chance. Photographs and written accounts can help to draw others into the field and get them engaged.
What made you trace the routes of early explorers and what have you learned along the way?
Since as early as I can remember I was fascinated by travel and the natural world. Some of the early naturalists led lives I envied and accomplished things I greatly admired. By retracing their footsteps and trying to see the world though their eyes, I was able to immerse myself in the places and subjects they did so much to help the world understand and that we still need to know more about and to protect.
Your research has taken you to Nepal, Ecuador, Botswana, South Africa, Mongolia, and other far flung places. What’s your favorite?
I have no favorite. Each place has its own magic and has left an indelible impression on me. There are so many other places I want to see. I just hope we can protect what is still wild for generations to come.
What has been your relationship with the Academy’s 18 million research specimens?
I’ve participated in dozens of research expeditions, mostly as the chronicler, photographer, journalist, and historian. But I also helped with the collecting—adding plants, fish, insects, reptiles, amphibians, birds and mammal specimens to the Academy’s holdings.
I understand that among the amphibian collections you made in Ecuador were three new species of frog, and one was named Eleutherodactylus pecki in your honor.
Yes. It is humbling to be immortalized by a frog that is not much bigger than my thumbnail!
What other collections have you made for the museum?
One of my long-standing interests is in the intersection of science and art. In addition to writing on this topic, I’ve been able to bring a number of important art collections to the Academy to protect them and make them available for the study and enjoyment of future generations. The artists whose work I am most proud of having at the Academy include Terrence Shortt, Robert Mengel, Robert Verity Clem, Albert Earl Gilbert, and Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. Hawkins is a British artist who made illustrations for Charles Darwin and created the first life-size sculptures of dinosaurs.
You have written and lectured about some of the Academy expeditions you were on. Were there any you didn’t enjoy?
No, but there were a few that had some challenging elements. Once I was put under house arrest by China’s secret police for taking pictures of subjects the government didn’t want photographed. I was detained by police in Venezuela, Mongolia, and Siberia on suspicion of smuggling or traveling without permits. But the most memorable and frightening experience was being targeted for attack by hostile Indians while on an ornithology expedition in Ecuador.
The indigenous people of the Cutucu Mountains thought we were looking for gold, not birds, and decided we needed to be killed. It was an easy mistake for them to have made, but not a good one for us! I described the experience in my 1984 book Headhunters and Hummingbirds, An Expedition Into Ecuador.
How did you and your co-author decide to write the Academy’s complete history?
In 2009, with the Academy’s bicentennial fast approaching, we realized that a full length history of the institution had never been written and that this was the perfect opportunity for such a book. We had long been fascinated by the colorful people associated with the institution and greatly admired what they had achieved. So we set off on the most challenging writing experience of our lives—and the most enjoyable. We were helped enormously by the Academy’s staff and by its amazing resources.
What’s your next adventure?
Although I love to travel to other parts of the world and immerse myself in other cultures, life changing experiences can happen anywhere and at any time. I look forward to sharing the most positive ones with my family and with others in the years ahead.
What insight do you have for young people interested in studying the natural sciences?
I guess the best thing that ever happened to me was being encouraged by my parents and a sixth grade teacher to immerse myself in the outdoors and take advantage of any opportunity to see and experience new things first-hand. You can (and should) learn a lot from others, but there is no substitute for making discoveries yourself.
A Glorious Enterprise: The Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia and the Making of Science is available in the Academy Shop,