Monday, March 22, 2010

Collier's Article...part 2

This is the second installment of an article about Ward's Natural Science, that first appeared in Collier's Magazine in 1950. The beginning is in last week's post. 

What Do You Collect
Butterflies or Hippo Skulls?

By James Poling

Part 2
In such a business, purchasing is a unique problem. According to Dr. Gamble, the rule is, “Buy when you can, sell when you can, and pray you make 5 per cent on your investment.” Hawley Ward chuckles, “if it is an investment. I remember, many years ago, we gleefully paid $1 for the skeleton of an extinct passenger pigeon. It was a beautiful buy, and we sold the bird for $75—so many years later that, according to my figuring, the same dollar deposited a compound interest at the time of the purchase would have yielded us a higher return. This is not a business for the avaricious.”

This nonavaricious business is conducted in an extremely relaxed manner. The whole establishment regards business protocol with a total lack of interest. The firm’s attitude is best illustrated by the fact that a secretary, who wants to go to one of the outlying buildings, thinks nothing of helping herself to the president’s station wagon. After all, if he wants transportation he can always fall back on an ancient red fire truck, still bearing the words Sea Breeze Fire Department. This is the company’s favorite toy.

Ward’s even takes a casual attitude toward the impossible or, at least what appears to the layman to be impossible. The United States Public Health Service wanted something done to further its malarial research that had never been done before, and turned to Ward’s. It wanted the salivary glands dissected from the head of a mosquito and mounted on a slide for a microscopic study. The problem was tossed to Dr. Robert Roudabush, head of the research and development department.

Roudabush spent a week studying the problem of separating a mosquito’s head into its component parts and in designing some new tools for the task; tools so delicate he had to shape and sharpen them under a microscope. Then he did the actual job in a quick 15 minutes. And, for good measure, he also separated and mounted the ducts which carry the saliva from the mosquito’s glands to its mouth. He doesn’t know what happened to the special set of tools. “It doesn’t matter,” he shrugs. “I could easily make a new set.”

Even the academic air common to science is heavily adulterated here. It is true that employees toss off words like yttrotantalite quite brazenly, and a simple, civil question may draw forth an answer like, “Oh, that’s a hydrous zinc arsenate crystallizing in the orthorhombic system.” But when a human parasite peculiar to China became available again after World War II, the company celebrated this occurrence with an advertisement headed, “Clonorchis Is Back and Ward’s Got ‘Em!”

Men Who Enjoy Their Work
The company supposedly works a five-day week but many of its desks have voluntary occupants on Saturdays and Sundays who seem to agree with Dr. Gamble that “If we don’t get rich we at least have fun.” In the summer every lunch hour is picnic time, and the employees gather at the tables and outdoor grill set up on the bay shore. Hawley Ward brings his lunch in a canvas and leather case that is, according to some authorities, easily as old as his fossils. In July and August many employees spend their vacations at the company’s station in Maine, fishing for the dogfish which are preserved and sold by the thousands to biology classrooms.

The company’s 75 contented employees are kept busy by the free-lance collectors who are Ward’s main source of supply. The active list runs to around 5,000, located in every section of the globe, and the names of another 7,000 potential collectors are on file. Mining engineers, prospectors, missionaries, explorers and beachcombers keep an eye cocked for desirable specimens. An eighty-seven-year-old man in Texas sends in butterflies, and Pedro Paprzycki, from a remote corner of Peru, delights the staff with his insect specimens and the quaint English of his letters.

Human skeletons are supplied by mysterious gentlemen in the Far East. And, when occasion demands, staff men are sent out on collecting jaunts.

If nature spawned it, Ward’s has it—or knows where to get it in the unlikely event it isn’t tucked away in the old hayloft between the coccyx of a mastodon and a cracked brachiopod.

This world-wide network has been set up to supply such customers as the British Royal Museum, the Smithsonian Institution, the Cambridge Natural History Museum, the Jardin des Plantes and the American Museum of Natural History, as well as thousands of collectors, educational institutions and research laboratories. There is also a ten-year-old customer who recently ordered “four lyons teeth with holes in them that I can wear around my neck.”

Tough on the Sense of Smell
The proprietor of Ward’s emporium derives a certain amount of secret amusement from conducting a visitor on a tour of the various departments. The reason becomes apparent when the visitor enters the small clapboard dwelling that houses the osteology department. As he passes through the door Dr. Gamble regards him with an air of expectancy, and grins as the guest’s nose wrinkles. “I might as well tell you,” he says, “that a tour of Ward’s is a series of sickening smells.”

This is no exaggeration. The odor created by macerating bacteriological material, busily at work cleansing the bones of various animals, casts a heavy, fetid air over the small rooms where skeletons are assembled. It is hard to believe there would be a demand for objects produced in such an atmosphere, but over $50,000 worth of skeletons a year are shipped from this small building and the company doesn’t dare advertise them because it can’t keep up with the present demand.

Bone assemblage is under the supervision of William Kruse, who has been with the firm over 35 years, and Oscar Kirchhoff, son of Ward’s original osteologist. Kirchhoff can mount a bullfrog’s skeleton in two and a half hours and assemble a horse in 36, while Kruse, who specializes in human skeletons, can turn out his species in 20 hours.

Once again in the blessed open air, the visitor finds himself on a tree-shaded lane that leads to the old winery. From the biology department, in the huge cellar of the winery, Ward’s annually ships over 50,000 embalmed dogfish and bullfrogs, alone. The cavernous, damp cellar is jammed with crates full of live frogs and earthworms, old bathtubs in which turtles swim lazily and vats full, not of sherry and burgundy, but of preserved dogfish, crayfish, perch and sea anemones.

The place also smells to high heaven of phenol and formaldehyde, which Robert Casey, the tall, bald custodian ignores as he lovingly injects varicolored plastics into a dead turtle’s veins and arteries. When the plastic has hardened the surrounding tissue will be corroded away, thus leaving a colored “road map” of the circulatory system, a valuable study aid for the zoologist. The technique was developed at Ward’s.

The atmosphere of this basement arouses the zoologist in the firm’s president and he goes plunging into a vat after a clammy dogfish like a hungry burgher into a pickle barrel and comes out drenched with evil-smelling formaldehyde. “Damn it,” he says in disgust, “I never seem to learn. I’ll have to go change this suit.”

The mineralogy department occupies two huge rooms on the main floor of the winery. The sharp, pungent odor of hydrochloric acid, used in cleaning crude specimens, pervades the air; a relief after the biology dungeon. David Jensen, the head mineralogist, sits at a rock-piled desk. Lanky, placid and contented, he has the air of a bank president surrounded by the world’s wealth. He cradles a piece of mineral, coated with blue crystals as delicate and fragile as hairs, like a woman fondling a rare emerald. However, Jensen is more than a connoisseur of mineralogical rarities. When the Argonne National Laboratory neede done of the earth’s oldest metals, a Pre-Cambrian telluride, for an experiment, Jensen tracked it down for them—by telephone, mail and cable—through five countries on three continents.

Behind the mineral rooms is Hawley Ward’s domain, a conglomeration of cabinets and shelves filled with fossils, weird and fantastic sea shells and fragile, lacelike coral. Hawley gets up from his desk when a visitor comes in and brushes cigarette ashes from his clothes. Then he lights another cigarette and shows off his prize specimens. Each one brings a story to the old gentleman’s mind, but a fan-shaped piece of coral recalls his favorite.

A University of Rochester professor, who was sent to the Pacific on a coral-collecting expedition, had orders from his wife to bring back certain specimens for decorative use in her living room. He couldn’t find any that came up to her exacting specifications. On his way home he appealed to the curator of Honolulu’s Bishop Museum for help. The curator was glad to help; in fact, he had just what was required, in duplicate—coral specimens that had been shipped out to him, on his coral-reefed island, from Ward’s.

With the return of Dr. Gamble, freshly pressed and considerably less fragrant, the visitor is led to a room adjacent to the fossil collection, where the recently opened model department turns out unique anatomical and zoological models of great accuracy and surprising beauty. Some of these models carry as many as 40 colors. Lillian Girard, an attractive ex-portrait painter, spends her days painting brilliant schematic colors on cross sections of a human kidney or, possibly, a frog-embryo  model. Lillian thinks she may be the only artist in America who paints exclusively with lacquer, a medium which has forced her to develop a wholly original brush technique.

The second floor of the winery is the mosquito-carving Dr. Roudabush’s territory. It heads the microslide and bioplastic departments and, as could be expected, his domain has its distinctive odor of xylene, a compund used in “fixing” specimens on microscopic slides.

Dr. Roudabush was largely responsible for Ward’s making commercially feasible the method for embedding and perpetually preserving biological specimens in clear plastic. This was felt to be of such great importance that the company immediately made public the secret of the bioplastic process.

Ward’s was at once flooded with letters from people who wanted to put the process to better uses. The chef of a prominent New York hotel had a wedding cake he wished to have preserved. An undertaker saw no reason why he and Ward’s couldn’t revolutionize America’s burial customs. Dr. Gamble says, solemnly, “Since we could only produce about 50 of our own bioplastic items a week, I felt I had to decline all of these kind offers.”

Ward’s has had some remarkable experiences with present-day collectors, but the greatest collector of them all will always be Henry Augustus Ward, the establishment’s founder. Henry Augustus was born in Rochester in 1834 and began collecting at the age of three. The city’s university still has a small pebble of hornblendic gneiss in its rock collection which bears the inscription, “Found in a stone pile in corner of zigzag rail fence, corner of Grove and Gibbs Street, about 1837. The first specimen I ever collected. H.A.W.”

While a penniless student at Williams College, Ward walked 58 miles to meet the great naturalist Louis Agassiz. As a result of this meeting Henry was appointed to Harvard as Agassiz’ assistant.

After two years with the naturalist, Henry went to France and obtained permission from the Widow Cliquot of champagne fame to explore her vast limestone wine cellars. There he mined two tons of rare fossilized materials and, with these specimens as his basic stock, he spent the next two years horse-trading over all Europe. At the end of that period he returned to Rochester with the greatest geological collection ever seen in this country, a collection which formed the cornerstone of today’s business.

Henry Ward then launched out on an incredible career that involved expeditions to four continents, 57 Atlantic crossings and three encirclements of the globe. He was the first man to use diving equipment in collecting marine specimens and a pioneer in the use of balloons for geological surveys. He prospected for mammoth remains in Siberia and his prying ways almost got him beheaded in Iran.

When Henry heard of the discovery of a pit full of the bones of the extinct moa bird, in New Zealand, he chartered a ship and transported the whole find back to this country. He arranged for the stuffing and mounting of Jumbo for P.T. Barnum, lost money on the deal, and retaliated by selling the elephant’s 40-pound heart to a rival exhibitor for $40. Once, Henry was chased through the Brazilian jungle by a company of soldiers who resented his making off with a prized meteorite. He succeeded in getting the prize safely aboard ship, only to have the vessel catch fire off the U.S. coast. When the captain decided to abandon ship, the collector had to use a revolver to persuade him to sail the blazing vessel into Charleston Harbor.

In 1906, when he was seventy-two years old, this colorful man was killed by an automobile while crossing a Rochester street. The late W.T. Hornaday, one of our great natural scientists, said of him, “He did more toward the creation and expansion of the scientific museums of the world than any other 20 men I could name.”

The establishment passed into the hands of two members of the family who finally in 1927, presented it to the University of Rochester. In 1930 a fire swept the building that housed the collections which had taken 75 years to assemble, and the university, in despair, decided to give the business up. Hundreds of letters poured in from scientists all over the world, protesting the abandonment of the tradition-steeped firm, and a reorganization was attempted. The depression had a blighting effect on this endeavor and, in 1940, the university sold the business to Dr. Gamble and Hawley Ward.

Today, Dr. Gamble is striking out in new fields. For years the firm’s letterhead has read, “Serving Geologists—Mineralogists—Paleontologists—Zoologists—Botanists—Entomologists.” Dr. Gamble has now added, to all intents and purposes, the words, “—And Kids.” He believes children are of greater cosmic importance than ologists and he feels that the more they know about nature’s orderly processes the less likely they are to indulge in the juvenile violence that has characterized the last few years.

He has shifted emphasis from items like Macrodontia cervicornis to a Hobby Catalog and a series of booklets with such titles as What to Do with Fossils, How to Make an Insect Collection, How to Balance an Aquarium and, even What You Can Do with the Swamp Cat-Tail. (You can make pancakes with it, eat it raw, weave it into mats, stuff pillows or insulate your feet with it, and read by it—the book says.)

Relief for Frazzled Nerves
Dr. Gamble believes that nature studies can be of great benefit to adults in these harassing times. The butterfly a man can mount is better for him than the one in his stomach, he says, and it is a good idea if he can subsitute sea shells for bombshells in his thinking—and the doctor points to the Boston psychiatrist who has sent many patients to Ward’s, to take up conchology for their frazzled nerves.

These harassing times are posing problems for Ward’s too. Geiger counters are now in demand, along with exhibits of radioactive minerals and uranium-bearing ores. It has taken three years to get government approval for a shipment of gem-cutting tools to be sent to Austria. The museums of Holland and Belgium have drawn heavily on Ward’s to replace items lost in the bombings. The new governments of India and Pakistan are making inroads on Ward’s stock to supply the 11 new universities they are building. And the Oak Ridge, Brookhaven and Argonne National Laboratories, as well as outfits in the uranium-rich Belgian Congo, are becoming increasingly important and demanding customers.

However, an unsettled world has posed less of a problem for the establishment than a loving heart. A certain gentleman of the Far East has, at the moment, a “very dear friendly lady” traveling in this country. He has written Ward’s and suggested, in view of exchange conditions, that they advance her $1,000. In return, he would find it “pleasantly pleaseful” to supply the company with a $1,000 worth of human skeletons!

You wouldn’t think that even this unique proposal would give pause to a firm that catalogues Venus, Preserved, for 25 cents, and Nymphs, at 65 cents a dozen. But it has, definitely. Ward’s needs the skeletons badly and they have no doubt the friendly lady needs the money. But what Ward’s would like to know is: How can they be sure they’ll ever get the skeletons and, if they do, what assurance have they that the specimens will be of a “pleasantly pleaseful” variety?



Thank you for indulging our exploration of the history of the Ward family. A treasure-trove of archives about the Ward's are also held at the University of Rochester Library. 
The extinct moa bird illustration is by Peter Ward, and the elephant was drawn by his father Addison W. Ward. 
And by the way, Happy Birthday Uncle Vere!


  1. Fascinating! It must have been a labor of love to work with all that formaldehyde and xylene! Nice pictures too. I guess Wards and its Moa birds were legendary, does Andrew remember hearing about the Moa? Henry Augustus was quite an adventurer, what a good story his life would make! Mr. Poling did a nice job on this article.

  2. That's a great idea to write a life story of Henry Augustus. Maybe there is already one in the archives somewhere.