The Hard-Drinking Early Smithsonian Naturalists of the Megatherium Club

Megatherium is the genus of an extinct 20-foot-long South American ground sloth. It was also the name of a very exclusive club. The Smithsonian Institution was established in 1846 in Washington, DC, a town not known for science at that time. That meant it offered wide open opportunities for young, adventurous scientists to get in on the ground floor of a project that could afford to fund their expeditions, experiments, and writing. They could also hobnob with like-minded fellows in a shared boardinghouse.  

Like their English counterparts, the members of the Megatherium Club were united by youth, ambition, intelligence and a deep and abiding love of the natural world. Their days were spent in the bowels of the Smithsonian, hunched over jars of marine worms in alcohol or endless trays of fossils. Thanks to Baird, who was known as a “collector of collectors,” specimens arrived at the Smithsonian from all over the world. Stimpson and the other taxonomic zoologists sorted, described and classified this avalanche of specimens. Their work provided a solid foundation for future biologists by updating and standardizing the classification of flora and fauna.

At night they were ready to cut loose—drinking until dawn. Then they’d recover from their revelries with long walks on Sunday mornings, "the true Church for sedentary men," Stimpson said, when a friend wondered if perhaps they should attend church instead. Courting young ladies, especially with picnics along scenic Rock Creek, was another favorite leisure activity. “Spring is coming fast, glorious season which gives us new life while nature lures us to her arms," Stimpson wrote, in a letter to the geologist Ferdinand Hayden. “I shall now have more time and take more out-door recreation especially in the form of picnics with the girls, the dear angels some of whom I should certainly try to marry were it not for the pain of leaving the others.”

The young men may have partied hard, but they needed mutual support as they helped establish the Smithsonian as a respectable science organization. Read about the Megatherium Club at Smithsonian.

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