Florida Museum of Natural History

Artist-Naturalists in Florida

by Charlotte M. Porter

Professionalization of natural history

In the United States, taxonomic biology, the study of plants and animals, was reformed by resident academic naturalists who had little field experience and little interest in the theoretical contributions of field naturalists.45 Despite these changes in the profession, the public image of the traveling naturalists did not change, and in the late 1820s, the United States government continued to seek their advice for staffing exploring expeditions.46 Exploring naturalists were criticized by their scientific colleagues for undue commitment to field work at the expense of conventional museum studies.47 Nuttall, Say, and Peale diverted and amused their readers in their travel journals, but even their critics did not question their scientific accuracy.48 Indeed, ability to separate science from non-science without disregarding nature's beauty was one of their lasting contributions to American culture.

Nuttall, Say, Peale, and other exploring naturalists may have lacked Audubon's genius, but they were men of courage. Their travel observations gave their work an appeal which was absent from the studies of their armchair colleagues. The exact impact of their frontier experiences upon their subsequent relationships with the resident scientific community is difficult to assess. It is clear that after their return, these explorers were unable to pursue successful scientific careers in this country and to varying degrees became social misfits.49 Their descriptions or landscapes, Indian peoples, and the wealth of new species failed to substantiate conventional ideals about nature. Scientific insights they gained on the margin of settlement remained on the margin. The scientific establishment welcomed their collections, but incorporated little of their thought into the mainstream of American natural history.50

Footnotes

45. Hunter Dupree, "Thomas Nuttall's Controversy with Asa Gray," Rhodora, LIV (Decembcr, 1952), 293-303; Jessie J. Poesch, Titian Ramsay Peale, 1799-1885, and His Journals of the Wilkes Expedition (Philadelphia, 1961), 94-103.

46. William and Mabel Smallwood, Natural History and the American Mind (New York, 1941), 337-353.

47. George Ord, "A Memoir of Thomas Say,'' in John L. Le Conte, ed., The Complete Works of Thomas Say on he Entomology of North America, 2 vols. (New York, 1859), II, viii-ix; Samuel G. Morton, A Memoir of William Maclure (Philadelphia, 1841), 29.

48. Ord, "Memoirs of Thomas Say," xv-xvi.

49. See L. H. Pammel, "Dr. Edwin James," Annals of Iowa, VIII (October, 1907), 180-185, 294; Weiss and Ziegler, Thomas Say, 117-157; Graustein, Thomas Nuttall, 336-361; Poesch, Titian Ramsey Peale, 94-103. For a succinct contemporary statement on this problem, see George Ord to T.R. Peale, January 27, 1852, in Peale Papers, American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

50. See Charlotte M. Porter, "'Subsilentio': Discouraged Works of Early Nineteenth-Century American Natural History, IX (April, 1979), 109-119.

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