Scientific Illustrators: Artists in Residence in the Castle - William Stimpson

Smithsonian Institution Building, The Castle

Bringing together artist and naturalist to illuminate nature.

This exhibit is part of a series that offers a glimpse of the work of four scientific illustrators who worked in the Smithsonian Institution Building between 1852 and 1898: William Stimpson, John H. Richard, Robert Ridgway, and his brother John L. Ridgway.
Scientific illustration is one part of what makes a museum collection important. Its purpose is to enhance and support scientific research by showing minute details and distinguishing characteristics of the specimens being studied.

...nor was Stimpson, despite the wealth which smoothed the path of his early years, to escape the overshadowing fate of his predecessors. Indeed, his fate was to be the most pathetic of them all, for the loss of his manuscripts, drawings and collection was to fall when health was failing and when the great work of his remarkably energetic life was all but ready for final publication.

- National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America Biographical Memoirs


Alfred Goldsborough Mayer

William Stimpson (1832-1872) was a student of the eminent naturalist Jean Louis Agassiz at Harvard University in 1850.

At the age of 21, he was appointed as naturalist on the North Pacific Exploring Expedition (1853-1856), which returned one of the largest and most important collections of marine organisms that had yet been made. Stimpson's efforts were largely responsible for this success. After the completion of the expedition, Stimpson followed the collections to the Smithsonian, where he began to work up the results.

- The Canadian island of Grand Manan was explored during the expedition. Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum

Stimpson, seated on the left, became head of the department of invertebrates and was the leader of a group of young naturalists, the Megatherium Club, who had gathered around Spencer Baird, the first curator of the National Museum. Stimpson also traveled to Europe, visiting the great museums and collecting in European seas. He was granted an honorary M.D. degree from Columbian University (now George Washington) in 1860, and in 1868 he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences.

Making use of the Smithsonian’s Natural History Laboratory, William Stimpson studied and cataloged its large collection of marine invertebrates as well as the over 5,000 specimens he had collected on the North Pacific Exploring Expedition (1853-1856).

Both John H. Richard and William Stimpson studied the Institution’s natural history specimens and drew illustrations in the Laboratory of Natural History, seen in this engraving found in the first guide book to the Smithsonian. The laboratory was located on the first floor of the east range of the building.

A chemical laboratory occupied an adjacent room.

Both laboratories were located directly behind the stage of the 900 seat lecture hall that featured a balcony and benches arranged in a semi-circle. Scientists would set up their experiments on a table in the laboratory which would then be carried on stage for demonstration.

- pictured here is a later, larger lecture hall on an upper floor.

Stimpson's "Synopsis of the Marine Invertebrata of Grand Manan..." published in Smithsonian Contributions Knowledge (vol.VI) was illustrated with fifty-three figures arranged on three pages.

The illustrations in this report reflected the growing trend in scientific illustration away from pictorial documentation and toward the use of simple outline drawings delineating important anatomical details of the animals.

Stimpson was only twenty-one years old when he published this sixty-six page monograph.

In 1865, Stimpson was called to direct the Chicago Academy of Sciences by his friend, Robert Kennicott. There, he assembled all the material he would need to complete his work. What material he did not have at hand, he borrowed from other institutions. The Smithsonian loaned a large collection of crustaceans preserved in alcohol, and virtually all the invertebrate material from the North Pacific Expedition was transferred to Chicago. Manuscripts in various stages of completion, drawings, and reference volumes filled the offices and laboratories. By 1871, perhaps only the Smithsonian contained more valuable scientific material than Stimpson had accumulated at Chicago. The Academy building was designed to be fireproof, but nothing could have withstood the firestorm that swept Chicago on 8 October 1871. Glass melted, iron turned to wax, and everything combustible burned. In one night, Stimpson lost his entire life's work. He valiantly tried to start over, joining a Coast Survey cruise in the Gulf of Mexico the following winter. But his health was broken and he died in May 1872.

- Smithsonian American Art Museum

The day following the fire, Stimpson was forced to share the devistating news with Joseph Henry, first Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.

Chicago, Oct. 10th 1871
Dear Sir,
It becomes my painful duty to inform you of the total destruction of the Smithsonian Collection of marine invertebrates, in the great fire of yesterday. All is lost, together with the rest of the scientific materials gathered in the Academy’s building, in value about $200.00. Our building, like all of the other so-called “fire proofs” in the city, collapsed like a bubble in the intense heat. All my collections, books, manuscripts and drawings, the results of twenty years of labor are destroyed: these include the works I had in preparation

for the Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections, with the exception of a few papers I had at my house. Everything of much value that I had in the world was deposited in the building for safety, and I am now left destitute. The patrons of the Academy have, I believe, all lost too heavily to be able to aid in its restoration.

It seems however selfish in me to allude to such losses when I see so much physical suffering around me. I need not describe the circumstances, as you have doubtless learned all about the disaster from the newspapers already. We who have roofs and clothing and food still left, are

doing what we can to help the sufferers.

Please inform Prof. Baird of this disaster and make my excuses for not writing to him also at this time, as I am far from well.

very respectfully your’s
Wm. Stimpson

Although much of Stimpson's work was lost, you can find
Report on the Crustacea Collected by the North Pacific Exploring Expedition 1853-1856 and other publications at the Internet Archive.

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