The dust is off a priceless resource

Author: John Nagy ’00M.A.


The story goes that Father Sorin obtained Notre Dame’s first natural history museum collection through an exchange with a physician for land Sorin held near Detroit. The display was ready for the University’s first commencement exercises, became a curiosity among local visitors, and was destroyed in the 1879 fire that consumed the Main Building.

The second natural history collection, the one showcased until the 1950s in the old Science Hall — now LaFortune — nearly suffered the same fate when it eventually moved to the Galvin Life Sciences Center. Not of fire, but of loss. Competition for space shoehorned the educationally useful sampling of animal specimens into progressively smaller rooms. Gaining access to certain species forced one to slide sideways to open cabinet drawers. Nothing was cataloged. Professors knew a few things to show students and kept those in their offices or classrooms. “The rest was just semi-abandoned,” says Barbara Hellenthal.

Liberation, adds Hellenthal, the curator of what is now the Museum of Biodiversity, came in 2006 with the opening of the Jordan Hall of Science, the University’s avant-garde house of undergraduate science instruction. That summer a troupe of 17 students gingerly steered carts bedecked with more than 300,000 specimens of reptiles and fish (afloat in chemicals), insects (eerily suspended in layered trays), skulls and whole skeletons (some swaying in the open air) and museum-mounted taxidermy into the spacious, climate-controlled museum on Jordan’s first floor.

“Not a single specimen was damaged during that move,” biology Professor Ronald Hellenthal, the museum’s director, recalls with due pride. Cataloging and bar-coding of the collection began immediately.

So was this Notre Dame biology’s version of King Tut’s unearthed tomb? Not exactly, but the rediscovery of minor teaching treasures soon commenced through the museum’s expanding, searchable database. Within two years, Barbara Hellenthal says, 33 classes had borrowed specimens for classroom instruction. Requests have come from Arts & Letters faculty, but the regular customers are science courses in evolution, mammalogy, vertebrate biology, parasitology and aquatic, medical and general entomology.

“We didn’t know until we got here, but we have at least one example of every family of salamanders except one worldwide,” Barbara Hellenthal noted while giving a summer tour of the museum. “Who knew? We do now, and use it.”

Credit for Notre Dame’s current collection goes to Notre Dame scientists, student interns and donors too numerous to count, but begin with Father Julius A. Nieuwland, CSC, whose meticulous documentation of local flora and wide-ranging accessions from American and foreign colleagues in the early 20th century formed the basis of today’s Greene-Nieuwland Herbarium, the plant side of ND’s museum. Nieuwland’s mentor, the reputed naturalist Edward L. Greene, arrived to teach botany shortly before his death in 1915, bringing with him the bulk of a plant collection he’d begun as a young Union soldier and expanded while adventuring out west.

Today the growing herbarium, which was always accessible in Galvin even as the animal collections fragmented, is internationally known to research botanists less for its size (a “modest” 280,000 plant specimens) than its breadth and quality.


Another major contributor was the late Professor Paul Weinstein, a parasitologist and co-founder of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Weinstein developed an invaluable collection of parasites in slides and glass bottles, which represents another of the museum’s strengths. Since the museum primarily acquires specimens in conjunction with the field research of ND biologists, its other specialties are medically important insects and aquatic life.

Barbara Hellenthal conducts the rare tour upon request, but her priorities are preparing specimens for classroom and research use, and overseeing the work of the undergraduates who organize and document the collections.

John Nagy is an associate editor of Notre Dame Magazine.
Museum panorama, cast reproduction of a microraptor and fluke photos by Matt Cashore.