Origins of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia

4 William Russell Birch (English artist, 1755-1834) New Lutheran Church on Fourth Street, Philadelphia. City of Philadelphia in the State of Pennsylvania, North America, as it appeared in the Year 1800

View from 4th St., Philadelphia, as it appeared in 1800. Artist: William Russell Birch (1755–1834)

In 1812, during a time when exceedingly few people showed any interest in wildlife or nature for its own sake, the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia (now of Drexel University) had its humble beginnings when John Speakman, a Quaker apothecary, and Jacob Gilliams, successful dentist and close friend of ornithologist Alexander Wilson, solicited some like-minded acquaintances to have regular meetings to compare their natural history collections and share ideas. Within about a month, they had assembled a group that included chemist John Shinn, Jr., distiller Nicholas Parmentier, physician and geologist Dr. Gerard Troost, entomologist and conchologist Thomas Say, and an Irishman named Dr. Camillus Mann, who served as secretary and about whom little is known. These seven men were the founders of the Academy. On April 16, 1812, physician Dr. John Barnes became the first elected member, and 13 more were elected by the end of the year. In the summer of 1814, the roster had grown to 46 elected members plus the founders, although by that time some members were deceased (like Wilson, who died in 1813) and one of the founders (Mann) was no longer affiliated with the Academy.

Mann served as secretary at the early meetings and is the only founder who was “struck off” the membership list. According to Nolan (1909, A Short History…), he had fled his native Ireland in 1798 and lived “for a time” in the United States. His association with the Academy lasted only two years, after which he apparently severed ties. Even the date of his death is unknown.

On August 24, 1814, Barnes wrote a letter to Reuben Haines III, the Quaker naturalist who was to replace Mann as corresponding secretary, that included a complete list of all the early members of the Academy and the dates of their elections [sidebar: Haines was proprietor of Wyck and the recipient of Audubon’s lost prospectus in 1825. See “The Heart of Audubon“]. Barnes also expressed frustration with Dr. Mann’s “negligence.” Remarkably, the letter and list still exist, albeit missing the addresses, which must have been on a second page now lost. They now reside in a rather obscure location (not at the Academy where they probably ought to be), in the papers of Reuben Haines’s great-grand nephew, in the Quaker and Special Collections of the Haverford College Library (Haverford, PA). The names that appear in Barnes’s flowing script include many of the progenitors of American arts and sciences, including Robert Hare (chemist), William Strickland (architecture), Alexander Wilson (ornithology), Isaiah Lukens (clock-maker), and Thomas Gilpin, Jr. (paper-maker, inventor).

Phila. 8th mo. 27th. 1814

Respected Friend,JBarnes_Letterto_ReubenHaines_1812

The enclosed list contains all the names of the corresponding members. Some have
and others have not been notified, and some have changed their places of residence since being elected. I have put down the places at which they resided when elected. I think it would be proper to notify all with a printed notice, accompanied by a letter stating the negligence of the former Secretary &c. Dr. Charles Moot the last mentioned on the list I notified with a printed notice as corresponding Sect. […] J. Gilliams being desirous of transmitting it on to him. Perhaps it would be prudent to consult the Academy respecting the European members. Would it be prudent to notify them, previous to transmitting them a diploma?

With sentiments of esteem, I remain


John Barnes


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