History of the Museum: Part Two: Early Curators

James Hall was appointed State Geologist and professor of Natural History in 1855, the University's first year of operation. In 1858 he was appointed as the first curator of the Cabinet of Natural History but failed to appear when it was time to assume his duties. The University went bankrupt during his 1855 appointment, an event which doubtless influenced his later decision. Theodore S. Parvin succeeded Hall in 1859, serving as Curator of the Cabinet, Professor of Natural History and University Librarian.

The primary emphasis on geological collecting during this early period stemmed from the legislative enactment linking the Cabinet to the activities of the State Geologist—the State Geologist also serving the University as Professor of Natural History. The earliest geological surveys of Iowa were undertaken in approximately 1848 and were concluded by 1872. Three formal surveys were conducted during this period, the first by David Dale Owen, United States Geologist; the second by James Hall; and the third by Charles A. White. That Hall and White served as curators of the Cabinet, and curator Parvin was closely associated with the work of the Iowa Geological Survey, provides context for the early accumulation of geological specimens.

Charles A. White, Parvin's successor as curator in 1871, seized upon Agassiz's "laboratory method" of teaching to enhance his arguments to then University President Thacher for an expansion of the Cabinet's limited collections. Frustrated by what he perceived to be a lack of support, Prof. White left the University in 1873 for a similar position at Bowdoin College, Brunswick, Maine, taking with him many specimens from the Cabinet which he had personally collected or purchased. This action apparently was more effective than his words, as the beleaguered President Thacher subsequently reported to the Board of Regents: "The removal of Dr. White's private cabinet has so far diminished our means of illustrating the several branches of science . . . as to give the hall in which they are kept a melancholy look of poverty. To say nothing of the very great need of a large supply of these means for the instruction of our classes, mere respectability demands at least that our now empty showcases be quickly filled again with valuable specimens."

Charles White was succeeded by Samuel Calvin, who was hired in 1873 as Acting Professor of Natural Science and Curator of the Cabinet of Natural History. The following year he was appointed full professor and given responsibility for instruction in geology, zoology, botany, and physiology.

Image of Samuel Calvin
As teacher and curator, Calvin also noted the shortcomings of the Cabinet of Natural History. In a notably succinct statement, he reported to the Board of Regents in 1875: "The pressing wants of this chair of Natural Science may be briefly summarized in two words: more specimens." Specifically, Calvin requested of the Board a total of $2,000 for support of his instruction in the natural sciences. This included $600 to be spent over two years for mounted specimens of birds and mammals, and $1,000 for purchase of fossils typical of localities beyond Iowa. His objective, like predecessors Parvin and White, was to expand the collections to a size to which they could effectively illustrate and support his lectures. Calvin's request was granted.
Part One: The Beginning Part Three: Charles Nutting and the Expeditionary Period