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Asia Center of The Academy of Natural Sciences

History of the Academy in Asia

The Academy’s history in Asia reaches back nearly two centuries. At the time of the Academy’s founding in 1812, Philadelphia merchants accounted for fully one third of the trade between America and China, as well as a significant portion of the American- India trade. These Asian contacts provided the nascent institution with many opportunities to obtain natural history specimens for study and (later) public display. For the next fifty years, until the Academy was in a position to send its own collectors to Asia, commercial traders brought a range of plant and animal collections from a variety of Asian ports for inclusion in the Academy’s museum. By the close of the nineteenth century, the Academy was beginning to establish its presence around the world thereby dramatically increasing the scope and size of its collections.

Because of the Academy’s early and continuing interest in Asia, its library holds many of the classic books on travel and exploration in that part of the world, as well as most of the important monographs on the flora and fauna of Asia.

Rhodeus maculatus, a Chinese cyprinid described by H.W. Fowler
New cyprinid fish described by
Henry W. Fowler in 1910

In the twentieth century, a number of Academy members and staff scientists made major contributions to the study of Asia’s flora and fauna. Among these were Henry Weed Fowler (1878-1965), author of A Synopsis of the Fishes of China (1930-1941), Henry A. Pilsbry (1862-1957), author of Catalogue of the marine mollusks of Japan (1895) and Mollusca of the Japanese Empire, Korea and China (1928), Brooke Dolan (1909-1945), who collected most of the animals exhibited in our Asian Hall dioramas, and Rodolphe Meyer De Schauensee (1901-1984), author of The Birds of China (1984), to name just four.

Nor were our activities limited to taxonomic study. Academy member Adele Marion Fielde (1839-1916) spent fifteen years as a Baptist missionary in Shantou on the southeastern coast of China, where she became deeply interested in the theory of evolution. To further her studies she returned to America in 1884 and became a Jessup student at the Academy, where she studied with Joseph Leidy, Edward Cope and others. During her studies, Fielde made presentations at Academy meetings about the language and literature of China, the intellectual development of Chinese women, geology, rhizopoda and other matters. She returned to China in 1885, where she continued extensive correspondence with the Academy’s secretary and librarian Edward Nolan. She subsequently published her scientific findings (on Asian insects, among other topics) and pursued a career in research and education at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and elsewhere. She was a major force in the effort to gain voting rights for women in the United States.

Chinese snails described by H.A. Pilsbry
Three new Chinese snails described
by Henry A. Pilsbry in 1934

The Academy’s interest in Asia in the 1930s was most conspicuously demonstrated by two large expeditions to China and Tibet led by Brooke Dolan (and a later one to Tibet, made under the auspicious of the O.S.S.). These resulted in all but one of the dioramas in the museum’s Asia Hall, while his collections of birds and mammals (many made by the German zoologist Ernst Schafer) may be the most comprehensive in the Americas. During this same time, prior to World War II, Rodolphe Meyer De Schaunesee was actively collecting birds in Siam (now Thailand), while Henry Pilsbry, curator of Malacology, was a regular correspondent with the Emperor of Japan as he sought to describe the marine organisms of that part of the world. Pilsbry’s efforts and subsequent gifts and purchases have resulted in the Academy’s preeminent position in Japanese malacology.

During the 1970s, 80s and early 90s George Davis, chairman of the Malacology Department, focused most of his professional activity on the transmission of schistosomiasis by water snails in the rivers of Southeast Asia and China, supported by funding from the National Institutes of Health. He established a center for the study of this disease and its vectors in Shanghai. In 1983, Drs. Clyde Goulden, Rich Horwitz and Robert M. Peck sampled the rivers of Nepal supported by funding from the National Science Foundation.

The Academy’s Botany Department, whose earliest Asian collections were made in the South Pacific by John R. Forster (1754-1794) during Captain Cook’s second expedition (1772-1775), received an enormous increase in its already substantial collection of Asian plants with the arrival in 1984 of Dr. Benjamin Stone (1933-1994)) who had spent most of his career studying the plants of Malaysia and Indonesia. He brought with him thousands of specimens from the biologically rich part of the world and made the Academy an active participant in the Flora Malaysiana project, a definitive reference work on 42,000 species of flowering plants.

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Asia Center at The Academy of Natural Sciences
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