The Age of Reptiles

The Age of Reptiles
The Age of Reptiles, a mural by Rudolph F. Zallinger. Copyright 1966, 1975, 1985, 1989 Peabody Museum of Natural History, Yale University. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Lost Expedition

While cataloging some of Sidney Smith’s (left) correspondence, I came across an envelope marked “Woodruff Expedition.” Knowing Smith never went on said expedition, and having never heard of it, I was eager to see what the letters had to say. Inside were numerous letters to Smith discussing the proposed expedition and it soon became apparent why I had never heard of the “Woodruff Scientific Expedition around the World.” Many of the letters were from William G. Farlow, a botanist from Harvard. The letters expressed concern about the state of the expedition and lack of faith in the organizers of the expedition.

The “Woodruff Scientific Expedition around the World” was the idea of James O. Woodruff. He proposed a “floating school” which would take 200 students and cadets on a 2 year voyage. He had invited numerous scientists and naval officers to be faculty on board to teach things such as navigation, seamanship, zoology, botany, etc. His first attempt was to set sail in the fall of 1877. From the letters however, it became clear the organizers were having trouble securing enough students to make the trip a possibility. Originally, Woodruff was asking $5000 per student, a rather large sum of money for the time. By July of 1877, Smith and Farlow were increasingly skeptical at the chances for a successful departure and decided to remove themselves from association with the expedition. In fact, the tone of several of Farlow’s letters show he was quite agitated with the situation, suggesting Woodruff’s agents were not acting in good faith.

The expedition never did sail in 1877, supposedly due to a lack of an appropriate vessel, as explained in an article in the New York Times in October of 1877. A second attempt, scheduled to sail in May 1879, also failed. This time the cause was a lack of interested students. In June of 1879, James Woodruff’s dream of an around the world expedition ended with his untimely death at the age of 39. It’s rather sad the expedition never did sail as it would have been a great opportunity for not only the students, but the scientists on board. In the course of his career at Yale, Sidney Smith, a carcinologist, left his mark of the Peabody Museum’s crustacean collections, describing numerous taxa and publishing dozens of papers. He no doubt would have added great value to the expedition and to the Museum’s collections.