Iowa Alumni Magazine | June 2008 | Features

Stocking Iowa's "Cabinet"

By Carol Harker

cabinet (noun)

1 b: a collection of specimens esp. of biological or numismatic interest

Iowa's Museum of Natural History is one of the oldest university museums west of the Mississippi River. Established by the Iowa State Assembly in 1858 as the Cabinet of Natural History, it was stocked in the decades that followed by dedicated amateur collectors, hunters, explorers, faculty of the university, and others who gave or sold thousands of specimens to the university.

During a period of avid collecting, the university launched dozens of expeditions to explore, study, and retrieve material for the museum. Several of those trips resulted in new knowledge for science.

In 1893, for instance, Thomas Macbride, a noted botanist at the university and a member of the Iowa Geological Survey, visited South Dakota's Black Hills with Samuel Calvin, chair of the university's geology department and Iowa's state geologist. Their object was to identify curious rocks that the locals referred to as "petrified pineapples."

On the trip, Macbride gathered an impressive collection of these petrified cycads, short and stout palm-like trees that Calvin determined had flourished in the Cretaceous age. Not only did Macbride identify two new species of cycadeoid, but he arranged for some two dozen of the best specimens to be crated and shipped by rail to Iowa City. And this at a time when the availability of maps and supplies was at best unreliable and travelers had to rely on buckboards and horses to navigate an area still vulnerable to hostile Indians!

As Jean Cutler Prior notes in an article about early Iowa geologists, "Thomas Macbride. . .made a substantial contribution to knowledge about ancient plant life in North America."

Explorers for Iowa ranged from the Arctic to Nicaragua, from New Zealand to Barbados, from desert to rainforest, and many places in between. They brought back bird skins, fossils, plants, pelts, eggs, artifacts from earlier civilizations. They recognized that fieldwork is essential to understanding the natural history of largely unexplored lands.

And it hasn't ended. In the mid-1980s, Kyle, Neil, and Todd Bartelt discovered enormous mammoth bones while fishing on their farm near St. Charles, Iowa. You can read their story in the September 1985 edition of The Goldfinch.

Even more recently, a team of UI scientists has been excavating three giant sloths in southwestern Iowa. The Tarkio Valley find near Shenandoah marks the first time a juvenile sloth has been found with an adult. In this case, two youngsters (one quite a bit older than the other) have been identified.

Sometimes by plan and occasionally by happenstance, scientists have stocked the cabinet that we recognize today as the UI's Museum of Natural History. Follow the links below to read about some of their work.