By Cherie P. Edmonds, Digitization Intern, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Nowadays it is common practice to use photographs to record and track specimens, but before photography became a tool of scientific documentation, field researchers had to develop and use their artistic abilities. As an intern with the Smithsonian Institution Archives Digital Services Division working on the Field Book Project, I have seen the use of artistic illustrations to document specimens in the papers of Fielding Bradford Meek, the resident collaborator in paleontology at the Smithsonian in the mid-1800s. Meek’s correspondences with Timothy Abbot Conrad are the perfect example of how scientists used drawings and sketches to classify and record what they found.
T. A. Conrad (1803-1877) was a conchologist and paleontologist at the Smithsonian. He took interest in the natural sciences from an early age, like his father, Solomon White Conrad, a mineralogist and botanist. The younger Conrad followed in his father’s footsteps and became a leader in the field of natural sciences. He was a member of the Academy of Natural Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and several other societies world-wide.
Throughout his career, Conrad collected and researched shells and discovered several fresh water species. His correspondence with Meek, mostly relating to their collaborative efforts to identify and classify shells, spans nearly two decades (circa 1857-1875) and sometimes includes multiple letters on the same day.
RU7062_B01_F14_485 and 506 Shells Conrad asked Meek to help identify. March 2, year unknown. January 1, year unknown.
In his letters, Conrad mainly drew in black pen or pencil and shaded the sketches to illustrate depth and texture. He accompanied the sketches with detailed descriptions of the shells and where they came from. The drawings and information Conrad provided generally enabled Meek to identify various genera of shells; however, they still had their fair share of debates over whether certain genera were correct.
Conrad was well known for the large number of publications he produced and for his artistic abilities, which he used to illustrate his publications. In Conrad’s biography, Dr. Charles C. Abbott wrote, “His skill in drawing was remarkable and early developed. He not only made his own illustrations, but did considerable for others, as the shells, seaweed, and other small objects on some of Audubon’s plates of birds.”
In his first publication, American Marine Conchology, or Descriptions and Colored Figures of the Shells of the Atlantic Coast (1831), Conrad wrote in the preface, “it is designed to supply a deficiency which has long been felt by the cultivators of American natural history.” He included in this volume seventeen plates, which he drew, and his sister colored. His second publication illustrated “new” fresh-water shells of the United States; although later, others laid claim to some of Conrad’s species. This slight hiccup, however, did not deter Conrad. In the Journal of the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences, he published anywhere from one to a dozen articles in each of the first thirty-six volumes. The first four volumes contain eleven of his contributions, “all of which are profusely illustrated” according to Dr. Charles C. Abbott.
Surely Conrad’s artistic contributions to his fields helped in changing the way scientists record information. Conrad’s letters to Meek show how early scientists began documenting specimens they found and collected, and his publications included beautifully detailed illustrations of the shells he classified. Those incredible drawings make one really appreciate the amazing multi-disciplined and multi-talented scientists who developed the fields of study we explore and reference today.
Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 7062, Meek, F. B. (Fielding Bradford), 1817-1876, Fielding B. Meek Papers, 1843-1877 and undated, Box 1, Folder 14
Smithsonian Institution Archives Record Unit 7230, United States National Museum, Dept. of Geology Biographical File, 1862-1972 and undated, Box 3, Folder 45