Indiana Jones once obtained a gray whale specimen for the Smithsonian.
Long before he was a champion of slavery and state’s rights, Jefferson Davis championed the cause of funds for a national museum.
The foremost American scientist of the 19th Century had to go against his boss’ wishes to establish a natural history museum in Washington, D.C.
The aforementioned boss, Joseph Henry, invented the telegraph before Samuel Morse, and ended up in a lawsuit over same.
It is most likely that there are still large whales in the Earth’s oceans that are unknown to science.
Among other techniques, whale carcasses are cleaned up by beetles.
All these facts, and much more, were presented to the students of Clayton State Associate Professor of Biology Dr. Christopher Kodani today in an enlightening and entertaining seminar, presented by John Ososky, director of the osteology lab of the marine mammal program of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Ososky’s presentation to a full classroom in the Laboratory Annex Building was titled, "Battle of the Smithsonian: Spencer Baird vs. Jefferson Davis; A Look Back at the Evolution of Collections, Specimen Preparation and the Marine Mammal Program at the Smithsonian."
Ososky presented a century-and-half worth of information in a little over an hour, leading his audience through both a history of the Smithsonian’s natural history collections, and an overview of the Smithsonian’s marine mammal program, notably the study of whales and dolphins. In a wide-ranging presentation, Ososky’s “Whale Seminar” including just about every subject from Moby Dick, to Greenpeace, Jacques Cousteau, Teddy Roosevelt and Alexander Graham Bell, to say nothing of the real Indiana Jones, the president of the Confederacy, and distinguished scientists (and the first two Smithsonian secretaries) Spencer Baird and Joseph Henry.
To briefly re-cap some of Ososky’s more intriguing points…
The American Museum of Natural History’s fabled Roy Chapman Andrews, who is widely considered to be the model for the fictional Indiana Jones, once collected what was then a very rare specimen of the gray whale for the Smithsonian.
While he was still a U.S. Senator, Davis lobbied for funding for what would become the Smithsonian.
Baird, the first assistant secretary of the Smithsonian, and the top American natural scientist of the 19th Century, wanted the institution to invest in collections, and to actually be a museum. His boss, Smithsonian Secretary Henry, who did indeed also end up in a lawsuit over the telegraph, was against that route for the Smithsonian.
A whale stranding on a North Carolina beach (whale strandings are still the best way to obtain specimens of these largest of marine mammals) in 2003 produced an animal that still hasn’t been classified.
“We’re still not sure what it is,” admitted Ososky. “There may still be large whales out there that are unknown to science.”
In commenting on the North Carolina whale after the seminar, Kodani speculates that Ososky may very well end up naming the specimen as a new species of whale.
Finally, since stranded whales tend to present a challenge in terms of cleaning up the carcasses for mounting of the specimens, Ososky and his colleagues use beetles in a sealed environment to pick the carcasses clean.
In addition to the historical aspects of Ososky’s presentation, he devoted much of his time to talking about conservation of marine mammals, starting with Baird and his contemporaries, through the whole history of the Smithsonian, including Ososky’s boss, collection manager, marine mammals Charles Potter, and also noted contributors to conservation like Roosevelt, Cousteau and the Greenpeace movement.
For more information on Ososky’s tale of whales, go to; www.mnh.si.edu/onehundredyears/profiles/Whales_SI.html.