History of the Museum: Part Three: Charles Nutting and the Expeditionary Period

Charles C. Nutting, who had come to the University as a graduate student under Calvin, was appointed curator of the Cabinet of Natural History and Instructor of Natural Science in 1886. He served as curator of the Museum (renamed in 1887 from the earlier "Cabinet") for the next 41 years. With Samuel Calvin and Thomas Macbride, Nutting was part of the "great triumvirate" of University of Iowa naturalists who explored the entire realm of natural science. His primary research interest was in the taxonomy and geographic distribution of animals. In 1889 he was named head of the newly organized Department of Systematic Zoology.

Nutting's investigations, unusual for a scientist of that time in land-bound Iowa, were primarily directed to marine biology. He published extensively for both the University and Smithsonian Institution on marine hydroids. In all, Nutting described 124 new species, and produced a beautifully illustrated three-volume monograph on American hydroids, a classic of its kind.

The Museum also received its first significant donations of birds and mammal specimens under the curatorial stewardship of Nutting. In 1886 both William Temple Hornaday and Dr. Asa Horr donated their personal collections.

One of the most significant private collections secured by Nutting was that of Daniel H. Talbot.

Expeditionary work was the basis for Charles Nutting's scientific reputation. For over 30 years he organized, directed, and participated in a series of University expeditions which collected specimens for support of his taxonomic research as well as public display.

Nutting recognized the value of an interested public's attention to and support of his work. The Museum of Natural History served not only as a repository but also as a public window to scientific research. Shrewdly, Nutting gave equal attention to the development of popular exhibits. By 1894 Nutting's exhibits—systematic series of specimens crowded together in glass-topped cases—were a popular campus attraction: "We as students of the University are very justly proud of our Museum, and when friends come to visit us that is one of the first places to which we think of taking them." (Vidette Reporter, 4/7/1894)

To obtain specimens for both research and museum display, Prof. Nutting organized University expeditions to the Bay of Fundy (1890), Manitoba (1891), the Bahama and Dry Tortugas Islands (1893), Hawaii (1902), Laysan Island (1911), Barbados and Antigua (1918), and New Zealand and the Fiji Islands (1922). After returning from each of his major expeditions, Charles Nutting gave public lectures. He was an interesting, convincing speaker, and his enthusiasm and personal anecdotes attracted a full house for five successive weeks following the Barbados-Antigua Expedition in 1918. He wrote his expedition journals in a popular style, filled with vivid accounts of exotic animals, lands, and cultures.

Of the various expeditions initiated during Nutting's tenure, the 1893 Bahama-Dry Tortugas Islands expedition led by Nutting, Frank Russell's one-man expedition to the Canadian Arctic in 1892-94, and the 1911 Laysan Island expedition headed by Homer Dill have been particularly well-documented.

Part Two: Early Curators Part Four: Housing the Expanding Museum