Pennsylvania Polymath: Samuel Stehman Haldeman

Samuel Stehman Haldeman was a pioneer in American science with an uncompromising empirical bent who made definitive contributions in geology, metallurgy, zoology and the scientific study of language. His groundbreaking lifework touched nearly seven decades of science and included identification of one of the oldest fossils in Pennsylvania, elucidation of a plan for an anthracite coal furnace for...
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Monster Bones: Charles Willson Peale and the Mysterious Nondescript Animal

On October 14, 1800, a New York City newspaper called Mercantile Advertiser published a rather lengthy news/opinion piece on some large and very curious bones that had been unearthed on a farm belonging to John Masten, located about 14 miles from the New York state village of Newburgh. The unidentified author observed that “these huge bones irresistibly force upon us by the power of associating...
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Thomas Say: Pennsylvania Entomologist

Thomas Say was a keen observer of living things. In a scientific era that cherished primacy in classification and description, Say was renowned for his work. He named approximately 1,500 North American insects and scores of other species. This accomplishment alone could justify scientist Benjamin Silliman’s assertion that Say “has done more to make known the zoology of this country,...
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Humphry Marshall, Father of American Dendrology

Humphry Marshall (1722-1801) has been called the Father of American Dendrology, the study of wooded plants. In 1785 he authored Arbustum Americanum, a catalog of American trees and shrubs following the Linnaean system of plant classification, the first publication of its kind. A stonemason by trade, Marshall took an early interest in botany. His cousin John Bartram (1699-1777), who had created a...
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Biographer of the Feathered Tribes: Alexander Wilson and American Ornithology

“As it has fallen to my lot to be the biographer of the feathered tribes of the United States,” Alexander Wilson (1766-1813) wrote to William Bartram (1739-1823) on August 4, 1809, “I am solicitous to do full justice to every species; and I would not conceal one good quality that any one of them possesses.” At the age of 43 Wilson – weaver, peddler, poet, teacher...
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Historian of Pennsylvania Exceptionalism: Samuel W. Pennypacker

Reflecting on “the play of forces” that propelled him to Pennsylvania’s governor’s office in 1903, Samuel Whitaker Pennypacker (1843–1916) confidently declared, “there is no such thing as an accident” (a notion popularized by Sigmund Freud, the founding father of psychoanalysis). This was not to say chance plays no part in history because he pronounced with equal certitude: “To every man certain...
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A Treasure Trove of Books

Considered one of the finest repositories of rare books in the nation, the Rare Book Collection of the State Library of Pennsylvania was, at its conception, nothing more than an accumulation of law books necessary for the founding fathers to organize and govern the province. In­deed, for two more centuries, the collection of rarities and unique volumes, as it is known and safeguarded today, was...
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A Flowering for the Ages

Botanists who classify and name plants are called plant taxono­mists, plant systema­tists, or systematic botanists, most of whom work in her­baria, a name first applied by Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778), the great Swedish systematist. A herbarium, the plant taxono­mist’s basic reference source, is a collection of preserved plant specimens, mostly pressed and dried (although certain specimens...
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The Man Who Bought Alice in Wonderland

On April 3, 1928, a slightly tipsy world, still reeling through the heady Twen­ties, focused its attention on Sotheby’s in London, where one of history’s most famous and beloved of all books was about to be auctioned. Through Sotheby’s dark pas­sages, an excited throng tum­bled into the large auction gallery to see who would offer the winning bid for Lewis Carroll’s...
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A Salute to the Bicentennial of the Keystone State

The current Bicentennial celebration commemorates not the birth of the United States, but the proclama­tion of thirteen British-American colonies that were “free and independent states” as of July 4, 17.76. When they formed a loose compact in 1761, their articles of confederation declared that “each state retains its sover­eignty, freedom and independence.” The...
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