Detective Work and Historical Collections

One of the big challenges of freshwater natural history is that it is hard to determine what exact animals were present in rivers before modern collections began. Preservation of pristine freshwater environments has been almost impossible as anything upstream affects everything downstream. Our zoological museums are a physical catalogue of the historical wildlife in an area and a guide for where our habitat reconstruction goals should be set.

Physical collections are fragile. It’s easy to lose data somewhere along the line and have the specimens themselves become nothing more than physical curiosities. It’s even easier to have an extensive and meticulous collection fall into the hands of disinterested heirs and be lost to us. Specimens need to be cared for properly to maintain their quality, and the longer it has been since they were collected, the less likely it is that the historical value is maintained. Occasionally these collections are saved via thoughtful preservation by some concerned individual or institution or, much less often, by a fortuitous fluke of storage through a period when, had it been accessible, it might well have been destroyed.

Hildreth Labels

A collection of old labels, now dissociated from their original specimen.

A perfect example of this kind of fortuitous preservation is represented by two collections, The Hildreth and Holden Collections, currently located in our Bivalve Collection. These two collections were discovered together at Marietta College, Ohio. Few details exist today regarding the exact discovery, but some information has been preserved. Everyone directly involved with the discovery has, as far as I can tell, passed away long ago without publishing the details of the find.

It’s a weird twisting tale and, I believe, it deserves to be informally recorded here.

Our next post will fully detail the relevance of this collection and its history, but for now let’s just set the scene…

A historically significant collection sits in one of our cabinets. It survived because, at some point, someone sealed it into a wall.

The Hildreth and Holden Collections

What do we know?


 

Where and when was it found?

A photocopy of the Hildreth Journals found in the wall. All typing is from H.R. Eggleston as he went through the collection and checked for accuracy and completeness.

A photocopy of one of the many pages from the Hildreth Journals found in the wall. All typing is from H.R. Eggleston as he went through the collection and checked for accuracy and completeness.

Text left by prior curators indicates that the collection was found IN THE WALL of the old science building at Marietta College! The same source explains that the collection was revealed through construction on the building during World War II! It was then preserved by the renowned H. R. Eggleston.

Some of the Hildreth Collection specimens showing different labels as they passed from hand to hand over time.

Some of the Hildreth Collection specimens showing different labels as they passed from hand to hand over time.

The next clue comes from an article published in The Ohio Journal of Science 51(6): 320 in Nov. 1951 about another person, John Leonard Riddell, who possibly published (in 1832) the first professional botanical catalog of Ohio in a newspaper. Towards the end of the article the author, Russell Lee Walp, laments that the record of the collection is only found in the September issues of the Western Republican and Marietta Advertiser because the actual botanical collection was left in the Hildreth Herbarium which was “not cared for when it was given to Marietta College” and was eaten by arthropods. It goes on to say that “in the 1920’s H. R. Eggleston found that Hildreth’s insect collection had met a similar fate. A few years later Professor R. W. Whipple located Hildreth’s clam collection and his journal listing minerals, insects, clams, and curios in his collection.” Assuming that clam actually refers to mussels, that means that the person present when the collections came out of the wall must have been Professor R. W. Whipple, a largely unknown gentleman who put the collection into the care of Eggleston.

Our next post will detail some of the questions such as:

What did it contain?

Where’s the rest of the Hildreth collection?

How did we figure out when each collection was made?

How did we get it?

Why is this collection significant?

 

About the Author: Sara Klips is the Mussel Fairy who organizes things in the Bivalve Collection when no one is looking. She thinks freshwater mussels are cool and likes to talk about them while waving her arms wildly in imitation of mantle flaps. She thinks the museum should be submitted to Niantic as a new Pokemon gym.

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