In 1856 a group of like-minded men enthusiastic about the natural sciences began to meet in Chicago. The original group consisted of Dr. James V.Z. Blaney, Dr. Nathan S. Davis, Sr., James W. Freer, C.A. Helmuth, Dr. Hosmer A. Johnson, Dr. Edmund Andrews, Henry Parker, J. Young Scammon, Dr. Franklin Scammon, Richard K. Swift, Joseph D. Webster, Eliphalet W. Blatchford, and Henry W. Zimmerman. The group began adding other names immediately to their list of members and formally became “The Chicago Academy of Natural Sciences” on January 13, 1857, “The Chicago Academy of Sciences” by 1859, and in 1999, “The Chicago Academy of Sciences and its Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum.” The dedication and labor of many people ensured that the Academy continued to serve the public throughout its 157 year history, and will continue to do so in the future.
The men who strived to establish the Academy in the early years faced many obstacles almost from the beginning. The financial “Panic of 1857” turned many of the promised financial subscriptions into useless bits of paper. Two fires impacted the collections, the first on June 7, 1866 in their rented spaces that decimated over half of the collection and then again during the Great Chicago Fire in 1871 that destroyed the Academy’s building and almost all of its holdings. A second financial panic effected the economy from 1873-1879, that hampered efforts to raise funds to pay off debt incurred to rebuild after the fire. When the Academy rebuilt their structure after the Great Chicago Fire, they also paid to erect an additional structure for business purposes designed to generate income for the Academy through the rents to be charged, but business expansion did not return aggressively to the area, so few were interested in the property and the Academy ultimately went into foreclosure. In spite of these early challenges, the Academy’s members and trustees never lost their dedication to establishing a permanent museum of the natural sciences and finally succeeded in 1894 with the completion of the Matthew Laflin Memorial Building which served the Academy until 1994. Here is a brief overview of just a few of the individuals who helped bring about this outcome.
It was in the offices of the Dr. Edmund Andrews (1824-1904) that the original members began meeting in 1856. Dr. Andrews was a practicing surgeon and also a teacher of anatomy and helped to form the Chicago Medical College. He developed and maintained an avid interest in geology, particularly in glacial history, publishing some of his findings in the Transactions of the Chicago Academy of Sciences. At the formalization of the Academy in 1857, Dr. Andrews was appointed the first Curator of the Academy and held that position until Robert Kennicott took over in 1863. Later he served as President of the Board of Trustees for a number of terms, the longest from 1883-1891.
Robert Kennicott (1835-1866) was encouraged from an early age to learn about nature from first-hand experience. He began his more formal training when his father sent him to study with Dr. Jared Kirtland, a well known and respected naturalist. Through this connection, Kennicott met Spencer Fullerton Baird, assistant secretary of the Smithsonian, and in 1853 moved to Washington, D.C. to assist and collect for that institution. Kennicott’s participation in an exploratory expedition into northwestern Canada that was funded by the Hudson Bay Company, the Smithsonian, and individual Chicago patrons, provided the final spark for the impetus to find and open the museum to the public on January 1, 1865, since the Academy would have access to a sizeable collection almost immediately.
George C. Walker (1835-1905) was a benefactor and life-time member of the Academy. He served on the Board of Trustees as Secretary and President as well as numerous terms as Treasurer. He owned various companies but the bulk of his wealth was made in local real estate. Walker became friends with Robert Kennicott and adopted the passion for the creation of a museum heralded by the latter. Walker committed the funding necessary to ship the specimens intended for the Academy and collected by Kennicott in his 1859 expedition to the Yukon and Arctic tundra from Washington, D.C. to Chicago. He then became the chairman of a ten man committee formed in February 1864 whose sole purposes was to obtain the money necessary to make cases and obtain the space necessary to display the collection.
Dr. Jacob W. Velie (1829-1908) trained as doctor in Hammondsport, New York, worked as a dentist in Rock Hill, IL, and a druggist in Bath, NY. During this time, he was an active naturalist, developing his own collection and participating in expeditions. For example, in 1864 he worked for five months with Dr. C.C. Parry, the noted botanist, in the Rocky Mountains. He became associated with the Academy in 1870 when he became assistant curator under Dr. William Stimpson. After the Great Chicago Fire, Dr. Velie and Dr. Stimpson traveled to Florida, Cuba and the Yucatan on a collecting trip of which many specimens were donated to the Academy, helping to start the rebuilding of the collections. Velie served as curator for the Academy until 1893, constantly adding to the Academy’s collections during that time.
Matthew Laflin (1803-1897) was a prominent Chicago businessman. He built the Bull’s Head Tavern (then at Madison and Ogden) which became the city’s first stockyard as it provided pens for the cattle drivers. It was through his son George Laflin that Matthew Laflin offered $75,000 to the Academy if an agreement could be reached with the Lincoln Park Commissioners to provide the land to build the structure and an additional $25,000 toward its completion. An agreement was reached and the work began in 1893 with the final completion in 1894.
Assistant Collections Manager