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A 19th-Century Gift

From the Collections posts


These ammonites from the Museum's collections belonged to famed naturalist John William Draper. Counterclockwise from top, catalog nos. 61515, 61518, and 61499. © AMNH/D. Finnin

Not long ago, a descendant of John William Draper, a celebrated 19th-century naturalist, gave the Museum Draper’s collection of fossils from Whitby, England. The set, mostly ammonites, was neatly stowed in a wooden box along with a handwritten list of contents dated 1844 and a price stamp of 28 shillings.

“It’s a lovely cabinet of curiosities,” says Neil Landman, curator in the Division of Paleontology, who suspects Draper bought the collection whole, perhaps as a gift for his children or because it was “the kind of thing any respectable naturalist would have owned.”

Born in England in 1811, Draper emigrated to the U.S. in 1832 and rose to prominence as a chemist, botanist, historian, and pioneering photographer. He served as president of New York University from 1850 to 1873 and was a founder of the NYU Medical School, where he taught chemistry until a year before his death in 1882.

At the time Draper acquired the set, Europe was the epicenter of fossil hunting. The Jurassic beds of the Whitby area were an especially rich source of ammonites—the sine qua non of fossils at the time, says Landman, because paleontologists had only lately realized they could use ammonites to date rocks. But as explorers in the American West began uncovering dinosaur bones and other fossils in the 1850s, the focus began to shift to the New World. Had Draper purchased such a set in the 1880s, says Landman, the fossils would have been American.

Several of Draper’s children became scientists: John Christopher (1835–1885), a physician and chemist; Henry (1837–1881), an astronomical photographer; Daniel (1841–1931), a meteorologist who established the New York Meteorological Observatory in Central Park; and Antonia Draper Dixon (1849–1923), an ornithologist. Draper’s ammonite collection may have inspired an interest in his granddaughter Carlotta Joaquina Maury (1874–1938), who became a paleontologist. Maury periodically prepared and cataloged fossils and, in the 1930s, published scientific articles in the Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History and American Museum Novitates.

A version of this story originally appeared in the Winter issue of Rotunda, the Member magazine.

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