Orson Bennett Johnson, the Young Naturalists, and the Birth of a Museum

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He was not only the pioneer zoologist of the Northwest, but an educator who exerted a profound influence throughout his territory. Many able students received instruction from him and went forth not alone with an added knowledge of facts, but with an increased enthusiasm and desire to emulate him. They succeeded, and, in their success, they glorified him as well as themselves.

--Dr. E. C. Van Dyke, Professor of Entomology, University of California,
in "A Short Account of the Life of Orson Bennett Johnson" by Melville Hatch
Footnote 1

Orson Bennett ("Bug") Johnson served as professor of natural science at the University from 1882 to 1892. He is considered to be one of the pioneering naturalists of the Pacific Northwest and is credited with building an extensive collection of regional flora and fauna, and with bringing this new scientific knowledge to the attention of the scientific world. The extensive collections he helped to establish gave rise to the Washington State Museum, which today still continues as the Burke Museum on the UW campus. Moreover, he catalyzed the growth of an early research group called the Young Naturalists' Society, bringing the research practices, programs, and standards of the University to a new level of professionalism. Later, beginning in about 1892, ill health forced Johnson to confine his activities to collecting. For some 25 years, he built up an extensive insect collection that he gave to the University.footnote 1

Johnson arrived in Seattle in the fall of 1882 to take up his new faculty post at what then was the Washington Territorial University. He was joining an institution--and a region--that at the time had few activities in the sciences.

Orson B. ("Bug") Johnson [Orson B. Johnson]

The University, founded in 1861, had gotten off to something of a slow start during its first two decades. As might be expected in a frontier settlement at that time, the University suffered from limited financial resources and public support, a small population of students, and a "thinly stretched faculty," among other challenges.footnote 2 "Living in a pioneer community, without library facilities, in the midst of a strange fauna, he was, perhaps, very wise in constituting himself primarily a collector," recalls Melville Hatch in his biographical account of Johnson's life.footnote 1

Prior to coming to Seattle, Johnson had worked in Oregon and was instrumental in founding the Oregon Cabinet of Natural History. When he came to Seattle, he brought with him his entire collection of more than 20,000 biological specimens gathered while in Oregon. That gave the Washington Territorial University the largest natural history collection in the Northwest.

By the time Johnson arrived in Seattle, a group called the Young Naturalists had been operating for about two years. It had been organized by a group of amateurs and initially had no affiliation with the University. Johnson joined up and soon the group had reorganized with new goals: to develop an extensive collection, to organize classes and lectures, and to create a public museum. By 1885, the Young Naturalists' Society, as it had come to be called, entered into an agreement with the University to lease land for a new hall on the University's tract in downtown Seattle. The Society took occupancy of its new facility in 1886 and created a public display of its collections.

[1883 Zoology Class]
  1883 Zoology Class taught by Orson Bennett Johnson.

"Through the Museum, lectures given in the meeting hall, classes offered in natural history, and organized collecting expeditions throughout the Northwest, the Young Naturalists' Society became the center for natural history in the Puget Sound area," writes science historian Keith Benson, UW professor of medical history and ethics, and adjunct professor of history.footnote 2

Not only that, it represented essentially "the first endemic study of natural history in Washington Territory," writes Hatch. "Previously, the natural history work in the region had been done by visiting naturalists," he notes.

The Society counted among its members Edmond Meany and Trevor Kincaid, faculty members at the University. By the 1890s, the collection contained Johnson's 20,000-specimen collection, Kincaid's 40,000 insect specimens, and a collection of 7,500 mollusks collected by P. Brooks Randolph, among other items.

When the University decided to move its campus from downtown to the current site, the Society entered a period of transition. It moved its collections to the new campus to facilitate their use in teaching. In 1899, the State Legislature designated those collections as the Washington State Museum. In 1904, the Society was disbanded, its library given to the University, and the remainder of its collections given to the State Museum.

In a volume celebrating the centennial of the University, The Vision on the Knoll, Johnson's special role in the history of the UW is perhaps summed up best: He made the "earliest traceable stimulus to research at [the] University by establishing collections of local animal, plant and mineral specimens,"footnote 3 and, it might be added, by the example of his enthusiasm for science, his dedication to the field, and his implementation of rigorous standards for scientific practice.

  1. "A Short Account of the Life of Orson Bennett Johnson" by Melville Hatch, in History of Zoology at the University of Washington, 1936.
  2. "Exploration in a Pioneer Land: The Young Naturalists' Society and the Birth of the Museum Idea in the Washington Territory," Keith R. Benson, Landmarks, 4, 28 (1985).
  3. The Vision on the Knoll, 1861 - 1961: The First Hundred Years of the University of Washington, a centennial publication of the University of Washington, Manuscripts and University Archives Division, UW Libraries.

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