Surveying the Natural History of New York State and Puerto Rico

Surveying the Natural History of New York State and Puerto Rico

In 1817, the Academy’s founders did not anticipate that the new organization would carry out research. They envisioned it as a place for people interested in science to meet and exchange ideas. The mission of the Academy, then known as the Lyceum of Natural History, also focused on disseminating the research presented at its meetings through Annals and other publications. On two occasions, however, the Academy marshaled the expertise of its diverse Membership to produce foundational natural history surveys.

By the 1830s the Lyceum of Natural History was already a leading scientific society. So it came as no surprise when, in 1836, the New York state legislature consulted the Lyceum on organizing a geological survey of the state.

At the time, other states had also begun to assess their natural resources. And New York politicians were especially eager to find out whether there was coal in the western part of the state, as well as iron ore, building stone, and mineral fertilizers. If so, these materials could be transported east via the newly opened Erie Canal and help to boost the state’s economy.

The New York Natural History Survey, however, became much more than an enterprise to support resource development. It helped forge bonds among the fledgling scientific community by bringing together—and employing—a corps of accomplished researchers for four years. And beyond investigating natural resources, these researchers also created a deep fund of knowledge.

For the geologists, identifying and mapping the state’s rocks was just a first step. They also pioneered a system for ordering and naming the formations based on stratigraphy. The Lyceum’s nationally famous John Torrey led the investigation of New York’s botany. Another Lyceum founder, zoologist James De Kay, took charge of describing some 2300 mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish, while Lyceum Member Lewis C. Beck authored reports on mineralogy. Ultimately the New York state survey was published in twelve lavishly illustrated volumes, and it is considered the most comprehensive state survey of its time.

The Academy launched another research venture decades later, in 1913—a scientific survey of Puerto Rico, which had recently come under the United States political control. The idea for the project sprang from an identity crisis within the Academy. As science became increasingly professionalized, the Academy was losing Members to new specialist scientific societies. Convinced that the Academy’s future lay in carrying out its own research, Nathaniel L. Britton, founder and head of the New York Botanical Garden, and longtime leader in Academy affairs, proposed the Puerto Rico survey as a way of engaging Academy scientists.

Britton originally conceived the survey as a four-year undertaking, focused on geology, botany, and zoology. But it quickly expanded and became increasingly complex, as Academy scientists collaborated with a network of researchers from the University of Puerto Rico and elsewhere, and added the Virgin Islands to its scope. Britton directed the survey until his death in 1932, and it continued into the 1940s. The series of volumes produced from the survey, and published by the Academy between 1919 and 1960, remain among the most complete multidisciplinary scientific descriptions of any tropical area ever made.

Directly sponsoring research has been outside the Academy’s mission for most of its history. Yet the success of these projects rested squarely on our long-term dedication to convening and mobilizing communities of experts. That’s what we continue to do today, as we address global challenges by advancing scientific research, education, and policy.


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