1. University of Virginia
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Unraveling the Mystery, continued

The Names on the Wall 

In the style of the Ecole des Beaux Arts, and like the Bibliotheque Sainte Genevieve in Paris, Brooks Hall has names written on its facade. They are all the last names of prominent natural historians. These names tell at least two stories. The first is a "history of natural history." The second is the story of nineteenth-century tensions in the study of natural history, and of tensions between Europe and America. Before explaining how these stories are told on the walls of Brooks Hall, it is worthwhile noting simply who each of the individuals listed on the facade is. While there is no surviving documentation of the exact identity of the "names on the wall" (for some of the names there is room for debate), I am confident that the information presented in Table 1 is correct. While volumes can and have been written on each of the following, the table provides only the most basic identification of the scholars. The source for the list is the Dictionary of Scientific Biography, volumes 1-16 (1980).

Table 1: Scholars Whose Names Appear on the Facade of Brooks Hall

 

EAST WALL (front):

  • Linnaeus, Karl (1707-1778): Swedish botanist and natural historian; developed system for classifying plants and animals.
  • Aristotle (384 B.C.-322 B.C.): Greek philosopher noted for studies in logic and metaphysics.
  • Cuvier, George (1769-1832): French naturalist; director of Museum d'Historie Naturelle in Paris; proponent of scientific theory of catastrophism.

 

SOUTH WALL: 

  • Huxley, Thomas (1825-1895): British zoologist and natural historian; strong defender of Darwin's theory of evolution.
  • St. Hilaire, Etienne Geoffrey (1772-1844): French natural historian and evolutionist; emphasized embryonic change.
  • Darwin, Charles (1809-1882): British author of Origin of Species; founder of modern evolutionary theory of natural selection.
  • Owen, Richard (1804-1892): British anatomist and paleontologist; rejected natural selection model of Darwin and Huxley.
  • DeCandolle, Augustine Pyramus de (1778-1851): French botanist and agronomist; studied plant domestication.
  • Lyell, Charles (1797-1875): British natural historian and "father" of science and geology; developed uniformitarian principle of geologic chance.

 

WEST WALL:

  • Wemer, Abraham Gotlob (1749-1817): German geologist; developed classification system for rocks and minerals.
  • Pliny (23-79): Roman natural historian and writer; author of 37-volume Natural History.
  • Humboldt, Alexander von (1769-1859): German natural historian, explorer and writer; interested in North American natural history.

 

NORTH WALL:

  • Rogers, Wlliam Barton (1804-1882): prominent American geologist; taught at the University of Virginia and studied local geology.
  • Dana, James (1813-1895): noted American geologist; taught at Yale. Agassiz, Louis (1807-1873): Swiss-born natural historian, zoologist and geologist; directed museum and taught at Harvard.
  • Audubon, John (1785-1851): noted American ornithologist and artist. Gray, Asa (1810-1888): Harvard botanist; considered to be strongest defender of Darwinian evolution in the United States.
  • Hall, James (1811-1898): New York State paleontologist; considered to be America's foremost paleontologist.

 

There is a structure to the order of the names that appear on the wall. The first element of that structure relates to the names on the east and west wall. Each of those named were natural historians who, in a real sense, laid the foundation for the study of natural history (and evolution) prior to the middle and late nineteenth century. Aristotle and Pliny form a straight line from east to west, symbolically centering and anchoring the building in the classical philosophical tradition. Linnaeus and Humboldt form a southeast to northwest cross-anchor line relating to the concern for order and classification (Linnaeus classified all living things and Humboldt classified rocks and minerals). The other cross-anchor is formed by a line connecting Cuvier and Humboldt, two natural historians concerned explicitly with how the present order of the earth was arrived at in the context of a changing world. The east and west walls then summarize, via the names presented, the major themes of order and change that frame the study of natural history from its dassical origins to the nineteenth century.

The second story told on the walls of Brooks Hall relates to the contemporary study of natural history in the nineteenth century, and to the tensions between European and American natural science and museums. In short, the building reflects the cultural and geographic opposition between Europe and America. The names are organized by continent or origin. The south wall names are all European scholars of importance at the time of the construction of Brooks Hall. The names on the north wall represent American scholars of importance at the same time. Evolutionist and anti-evolutionist appear randomly; geologist, botanist, and zoologist appear without order; Charles Darwin is accorded no special recognition in this formulation. The primary structure I discern in the placement of the names is the opposition between old world and new.

The meaning of this structure is not insignificant. Tensions between old world and new in the emergent arenas of natural history museums were quite high when Brooks Hall was built. In an article reviewing American museums of natural history published in Science in 1884, a European scholar concluded with the following nationalist sentiment:

[American museums] are almost all supported by societies or schools. There is therefore no lack of interest in scientific studies; nor is money wanting. But still the number of those is very small, who, out of pure enthusiasm for science, prefer the modest existence of a learned man to a materially better- paying occupation. In this respect Europe is still far ahead. Circumstances, however, will change, together with the great development of North America.... We must therefore keep our eyes open, if we do not wish the experience of having our young cousins across the ocean outstrip us in a field the thorough culture of which, so far, has been the glory of old Europe.(28)

A second line of evidence with regard to American-European tension in the study of natural history is also found in the names on the wall, particularly in the conspicuous absence of one name from Brooks Hall. The original plans for Brooks Hall are on file in the University of Virginia Archives. A point of interest that has struck all those who have examined the original drawings concerns some changes between the plans and final building. Primary among these is the disappearance of the noted French natural historian Comte de Buffon from the building wall despite his presence on the original architect's drawings.

Why was Buffon's name eliminated from the wall at the last minute? Some have suggested the need to make room for William Rogers, the University of Virginia professor and geologist who also contributed a substantial amount of his own money to see the building completed when its costs ran high. This contingency may well be true, but as an explanation it begs the question of why Buffon was the one eliminated. I believe the answer lies in Buffon's well-known antipathy to things American. Buffon was even known to challenge and belittle the size and variety of America's fauna in relation to Europe's. Americans involved in natural history studies and museums, such as Charles Willson Peale in Philadelphia, were agitated by Buffon's comments to a very real degree and sought to prove him wrong with their own displays of native American fauna.(29) However strange that sounds today, such were the real competitive tensions between American and European natural historians in the nineteenth century. Buffon's reputation was known to someone at the University when Brooks Hall was built, and it was on that count that I suggest he was eliminated. 

 

 

 

 

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