A Historical Perspective

Henry L. Bart, Jr., Director

Tulane University has a tradition of supporting natural history collections that dates back to the 1880's. The original museum was an exhibit-oriented facility established in 1885 by a special grant from Paul Tulane, who earlier that same year provided the endowment that transformed the former University of Louisiana into the private, nonsectarian Tulane University. Displayed in the original Museum were specimens from private natural history collections purchased with the grant, and donated exhibits from the World Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition held in New Orleans from 1884-1886. John Williamson Caldwell, a chemistry and geology instructor, curated the museum from 1885-1891. Joseph Finley Joor, a botanist, served as Associate Curator from 1886-1891, then Curator from 1891 until his death in 1892. George Eugene Beyer, a German zoologist, was Curator from 1893-1918. The museum was reorganized and revitalized under Beyer. By 1907, it contained a little more than 170,000 specimens. Following Beyer's tenure, the museum underwent a long period of decline. It was officially disbanded in 1955. The specimens - a number of which are still intact today - were distributed to various academic departments.

Dr. George Penn

The modern era of collection building at Tulane began after the end of the Second World War with the hiring of four biologists: herpetologist Fred R. Cagle, botanist Joseph A. Ewan, invertebrate zoologist George H. Penn, and ichthyologist Royal D. Suttkus.

Fred Cagle arrived in 1946. In addition to establishing the herpetological collection and his many scholarly contributions to the field of herpetology, Cagle reorganized the zoology curriculum at Tulane and revitalized the graduate program. The first two graduates of the new Ph.D. program were herpetologists: Robert E. Gordon, the recently retired Vice President of Notre Dame University, and Don W. Tinkle, who until his death in 1980 served as Director of the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology. In the 10-year period from 1946-1956, Tulane zoologists and their students published 135 papers and were awarded numerous grants and contracts. Tulane Studies in Zoology (now Tulane Studies in Zoology and Botany), a publication outlet for research on the zoology of the waters and adjacent land areas of the Gulf of Mexico, was established in 1953 under Cagle's tenure as Chairman of the Zoology department. A corollary to publication of Tulane Studies was the establishment of the Meade Natural History Library, a special collection of natural history periodicals Tulane receives on exchange from more than 400 museums and biological institutions worldwide.

Cagle moved into university administration in 1958. As Vice President for Research in 1966, he was instrumental in obtaining the large parcel of land on the Mississippi River on which the Museum now sits. Cagle envisioned developing the land as an extensive Systematics and Environmental Biology Research Park, complete with laboratories, library and housing for visiting researchers. Cagle was replaced on the Zoology faculty by Harold A. Dundee, a herpetologist who served as Curator of Amphibians and Reptiles until his retirement in 1988. Dundee continues to care for the Herp Collection in his present capacity as Emeritus Curator.

Joseph Ewan arrived in 1947 and established the Tulane Herbarium. He achieved widespread recognition for his contributions to the field of botany and the history of biology, particularly interpretations of early American natural history. George Penn, who also joined the faculty in 1947, built a large collection of crustaceans and aquatic insects, and a reputation in the systematics, life history and ecology of crayfishes.

Dr. Royal Suttkus

Royal D. Suttkus joined the Tulane Faculty in 1950 and immediately began building the modern fish collection on a foundation of just two mounted fish specimens left over from the early museum. By 1968 the fish collection had grown to a size of just over two million specimens, overfilling its space in Richardson Memorial and Dinwiddee Halls on the main campus. Cagle's dream of developing land on the Mississippi River as an Environmental Biology Laboratory was realized in part in 1968, when, under Suttkus' direction, the fish, bird, mammal, and vertebrate fossil collections were moved to the F. Edward Hebert Riverside Research Laboratories in Belle Chasse, establishing the Systematics and Environmental Biology Laboratory, now the Tulane Museum of Natural History.

Suttkus devoted his career to collection building and studies of the taxonomy and natural history of specimens he collected. From 1963 to 1968, he was Principal Investigator of the NIH funded Environmental Biology Training Program, a summer program wherein students received lectures and training while in the field collecting and preparing specimens of plants, invertebrates, fishes, herps, birds, mammals, and fossils. In the years since the move, the fish collection has grown to over six million specimens. In addition to fishes, Suttkus added over 5000 mammals to the small preexisting mammal collection left over from the early museum, over 6000 specimens of amphibians and reptiles, roughly 6000 vascular plants, and numerous aquatic mollusks, crustaceans, birds, insects, and fossils.

In 1976, Suttkus convinced the Tulane administration to formally recognize the zoological collections at Riverside as the Tulane University Museum of Natural History, and to appoint him as the Museum's first Director. In 1979 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Ecology Research Center established a field station at Riverside to study vertebrates in the waters around the Gulf of the Mexico. Station personnel assisted in the curation of the mammal, bird and herp collections from 1979 until 1982 when the field station was abandoned.

Suttkus retired from Tulane University in 1990. Over a career at Tulane spanning 40 years Suttkus, has published over 90 scientific papers, described 20 new species of southeastern fishes (20% of all the species described from the southeast during that period and 50% of the new fishes from Gulf Coast drainages) and directed 24 graduate students (10 M.S., 14 Ph.D.). As Emeritus Professor and Curator of the Museum, he continues to collect and publish on fishes and other organisms to this day.

Collecting in the field

In 1989, in anticipation of Suttkus' retirement, the Tulane Administration brought in a team of external reviewers to evaluate collections in the Museum and to make recommendations on their continued maintenance by Tulane. In their report to the administration, the reviewers described the fish collection as "a treasure of great national and international importance". They strongly recommended maintenance of the fish collection at Tulane and the immediate hiring of an ichthyologist to replace Suttkus.

In 1990, the Biology Department at Tulane reorganized. The collections of the Tulane Museum of Natural History moved under the administrative control of the newly formed Department of Ecology, Evolution and Organismal Biology (now Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, EEB). Henry L. Bart, Jr. was hired as Assistant Professor of EEB and Curator of Fishes at the Museum in 1992. He was appointed Director of the Museum in January 1993, promoted to Associate Professor of EEB in 1995, and Professor of EEB in 2007. Under Bart’s leadership, the fish collection was computerized, manually georeferenced, recurated and improved with support from four grants from the Biological Research Collections program at the National Science Foundation (NSF). In 2002, Bart and recently hired informatics specialist, Nelson E. Rios, received a fifth NSF grant to use the manually georeferenced collection localities as a test bed for developing an automated georeferencing software tool. The resulting tool, GEOLocate, developed by Rios, is now the leading software application for georeferencing collection event data for any group of organisms, anywhere in the world. The GEOLocate Project has itself been supported by numerous NSF grants, and has grown into an entire suite of software tools and services.

In 2011, the Tulane Museum of Natural History is once again being reorganized. Research collections of mammals, birds, amphibians and reptiles, invertebrates and vertebrate fossils, which long lacked active curators, are in the process of being deaccessioned and donated to other institutions. The vertebrate collections are being transferred to the Louisiana State University Museum of Natural Science. The invertebrates will largely be relocated to the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science. Thus, the collections will largely remain in the Gulf South region. The TUMNH fish collection, which was renamed in honor of Royal D. Suttkus in 2000 [see Royal D. Suttkus Jubilee], is being integrated into a new research center called the Tulane University Biodiversity Research Institute (TUBRI).

Department of Ecology, Evolution and Organismal Biology (EEOB). Henry L. Bart, Jr. was hired as Assistant Professor of EEOB and Curator of Fishes at the Museum in January 1992. He was appointed Director of the Museum in January 1993, and promoted to Associate Professor of EEOB in December 1995.