Robert Peck, senior fellow and artifacts curator at the Academy of Natural Sciences, has his fingerprints all over the world of natural history.
On the mountainous slopes of Ecuador, amidst the oversized foliage of the Amazon Basin, exists a very small frog, Eleutherodactylus pecki, also known as Peck’s Peeper. One of three frogs he discovered in this region many years ago, it lives in the very same place where he and a team of Academy scientists narrowly escaped death when their birding expedition was suspected of being an illegal gold prospecting operation and targeted for attack and temination.
When asked whether he was scared for his life, he politely laughs. “No, not until much later,” he says. “At the time, I felt I needed to survive because someone had to tell the story.”
That is exactly what he did — and has done throughout his 46 years at the Academy. The book he wrote about the experience, “Headhunters and Hummingbirds: An Expedition into Ecuador,” was published in 1987.
Since 1976, Peck has been a crucial part of the Academy, not only chronicling the work of our scientists and collections for the benefit of the public, but also accompanying research expeditions across the globe to assist in specimen collection and to document their scientific discoveries.
He has travelled widely on behalf of the Academy, visiting such locations as Nepal, Ecuador, Venezuela, South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Siberia, Guyana, Russia and Mongolia. To that last Asian country he made a total of seven trips over a period of 25 years.
Back in Philadelphia, Peck has helped to care for, research, interpret and present our historically important collections for decades. He has also written six books — including “A Glorious Enterprise: The Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia and the Making of American Science” (co-authored with Patricia Stroud), the first complete history of the Academy — as well as numerous essays and book chapters, ranging across many natural history topics. He is a regular contributor to Natural History, Antiques and The Explorers Journal, and he serves on the editorial advisory board of Archives of Natural History.
In 1991, Peck was awarded the Richard Hopper Day Medal by the Academy for his work in interpreting natural history for the public. He has also received Philadelphia’s Wyck-Strickland Award for outstanding contributions to the cultural life of Philadelphia and the Garden Club of America’s Sarah Chapman Francis Medal for environmental writing. In 2021 he was presented with the Founders Medal of the Society for the History of Natural History, an international organization based in the U.K., for his extensive publications in that field.
In short, Peck’s passion for the Academy’s mission to understand the natural world and inspire everyone to care for it runs deep.
Of course, we’re not the only ones to have noticed his lifetime of accomplishments. The American Philosophical Society (APS), the oldest learned society in the United States founded by Benjamin Franklin, has recently elected Peck into their highly selective membership.
The APS is unusual among learned societies, according to their website, because their membership is comprised of top scholars from a wide variety of academic disciplines, including art, law, literature, science and journalism. Less than 6,000 Members had been elected to this prestigious society since its founding 1743, with 269 of them earning a Nobel Prize for their work.
With this election, Peck finds himself among some of humanity’s most accomplished individuals. And like the other members of APS before him — Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Paine, Alexander von Humboldt, John James Audubon, Charles Darwin, Thomas Edison, Willa Cather, Marie Curie, Albert Einstein, Robert Frost, Margaret Mead, and Linus Pauling, to name just a few — Peck was selected to join the Society for his broad, wide-ranging achievements, experiences and perspectives in the sciences and humanities that have helped the public better understand and care about the world we live in.
As full and varied as it has been, Peck’s story is far from over. He has many more contributions planned, including further research and writing in natural history. The Academy looks forward to what he will accomplish next.