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Radford University’s Forgotten Treasures
by Alaina Walker, 2008
Through the years science has shifted its focus from natural history to the widely popular development of genetics and other new areas. It is remarkable for the world to be so widely traveled and have only a fraction of the species identified. One would think that this area would continue to thrive but in truth this area is no longer being funded or taught as widely as it once was.
The natural history collections of Universities around the world are being pushed into lost corners and crevices noticed by little and appreciated by few. As biology students focus their studies it comes to the attention of those taking zoology classes the real importance of having the collections in study as well as research. The Radford University Biology Department has quite a large conglomeration of museum specimens that have come from many localities, from Mexico to the backyards of Radford City, from birds to butterflies.
Specimen arrival at Radford University
How some of these priceless relics have been gathered remains a mystery. For some of the specimens traces of the histories are slowly coming to fruition. For a few their journey to RU has been rather unique and unexpected. The taxidermied birds in Reed/Curie hallway museum cases have had quite the history and were rescued from being thrown in the trash. The eggs once thought to have come from the University of Virginia are actually likely from the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History discards.
Exactly how the mounted birds arrived in the cases where they are now is not fully clear. From correspondence with former Radford professors a likely story has been retraced. The first individual to recall any information regarding the specimens was Dr. Richard L. Hoffman (currently the director of the Virginia Museum of Natural History, Martinsville, VA). He was a student of the University of Virginia (UVA) and actually took classes in the building, Brooks Hall, that likely housed the mounted bird specimens. Dr. Hoffman said:
"It was a grand, awkward, vintage Victorian red brick monstrosity, and should have been on the list of historic landmarks that could not be touched. The entire contents: fossils, minerals, rocks, stuffed mammals and birds, was bought from Ward’s in Rochester, and included incredible things that can never be gotten again*. The centerpiece was a rather cheesy full-sized mammoth, invested in some kind of grass-like “hair”, and so on. Once when I went back some years after graduating, I went by the Brooks Museum and was astonished that it was being gutted of everything. Some administrators had decided to rebuild the place as a classroom building." (Hoffman, personal communication, 2008)
Dr. Hoffman also mentioned that a professor Dr. Messersmith and his student Ruth Beck went to UVA in the early 1960s and collected some of the items that were being discarded.
Dr. Francl, a current professor’s correspondence with retired professor Dr. Moore led to new information regarding the mounts. Dr. Moore said that in the late 1960s, Dr. Messersmith worked out a deal with the Smithsonian to have specimens and also salvaged the mounted birds from UVA. Dr. Francl was able to contact Dr. Messersmith directly and he confirmed some of what Moore had suggested. “He [Messersmith] did go in 1962-1963 to UVA with his ornithology student Ruth Androvich--now Ruth Beck, a former president of the Virginia Society of Ornithology to collect specimens… he had just begun teaching ornithology so was looking for specimens. So they drove to UVA and brought back the dusty dirty museum mounts--these are the ones on display in the hallway cabinets, the cassowary” which we still have today. Not all but many of the mounts still have the original tags from Ward’s printed on the bases.
Specimen history prior to arrival at Radford University
Based on this known history, Radford University was not the first residence in an institution of higher learning for these specimens. To understand the full story we must take a step back in time around the late 1860s and the relationship between North and South is one of strained existence.
Rochester, New York was at its height in preservation and exploration of species many museums including those of natural history were being stocked with many exotic and unusual creatures by scientists and explorers. This was the area of science that was at the cutting edge. Many wealthy New Yorkers found themselves funding such endeavors to collect specimens from all of the far reaches of the globe. Lewis Brooks was no exception to this. Hoffman, in his correspondence, suggests that one such New Yorker by the name of Lewis Brooks may be the reason for the collections housed at UVA.
Little is known about Lewis Brooks. He was born 1795 and died in 1877. Brooks’ obituary was printed in the New York Times and an article in a publication known as the Rochester Democrat was also published after his death. It simply states “he was a peculiar man who was not married, who had no heirs, and who made his fortune as a textile manufacturer” (Hantman, 1989). However, we do know that Brooks did much philanthropic work and was cognizant of the strained relations between the two regions during reconstruction. He therefore donated a natural history collection to the University of Virginia to try and mend the relationship between the North and South (Hantman, 1989).
His natural history collection was stored in the Lewis Brooks Hall of Natural Science, which opened in 1877. Brooks donated that fossils, mounts, and specimens it housed. Located east of the Rotunda, the building has been an object of debate since its construction. In 1977, it was almost destroyed by the board of visitors because its design did not match the campus architecture (Hantman, 1989). Jeffrey L. Hantman, an archeologist working at UVA, came across information about Lewis Brooks and his ties to UVA. Hantman found that the man who donated so much left very little personal record behind. It is evidenced by many famous well to do New Yorkers that scientific inquires and development was very important to the men of this time. There was a social men’s group in Rochester created by Lewis Morgan in the 1870s. The group was known as the Pundit Club “devoted to scholarly pursuits”. Lewis Brooks was a part of this club, as was another well-known collector, Henry Ward. Ward made his living during this time collecting and selling scientific specimens. The business he started still continues to this day as Ward’s Inc. which sells a variety of scientific equipment and animal specimens for scientific purposes.
As Ward and Lewis Brooks were both members of Morgan’s Pundit Club, there exists correspondence between the two. According to Hantman, Ward and Brooks were very well acquainted with one another. Ward’s business at this time, 1874, was in deep debt. He saw Lewis Brooks as the key link between the success of his business and the progression of natural history as an important part of science.
“At the same time, Ward was also writing to Lewis Brooks. In these letters he also complained of his financial problems and promoted new museum opportunities. Mr. Brooks, this final blow [the Allegheny College disaster] has fixed my fate as a cabinet maker instead of a teacher and investigator." Ward continued by seeking funds from Brooks for a museum to be built in Rochester. (39) Ward's intent was quite obvious when he wrote to convince Brooks of the need for a natural history museum in Rochester, which he called his long cherished, plan " (Hantman).
In Ward’s letters he wrote:
But, Mr. Brooks, what hope can I have? How many men are there in Rochester who will consider such a thing - to give S10,000.00 to zoological sciences? But you know sir how few will understand the bearing of the natural sciences on the practical questions of life. There is no one who I can think of in this city who will start this subscription in this way if you will not. For you understand and appreciate the department of natural sciences better than does anyone in our city (Hantman)."
Ward was shocked at the death of his friend who was said to be in fine health and died suddenly.
Given this known relationship between Brooks and Ward, we believe that Brooks’ donations to UVA originated from Ward’s natural history business. This assumption is confirmed by that fact that many of the taxidermied birds originated from that UVA collections still have the original tags from Wards on or under the wooden stands.