HMNS@100: Henry Attwater – Naturalist

One of the founding collections of the Houston Museum of Natural Science came from Henry Philemon Attwater.  Born April 28, 1854 in Brighton, England he would become, as did many nineteenth century gentlemen, a naturalist.  But not in his native country.  In 1873, he immigrated to Ontario, Canada where he tried farming and beekeeping.  His growing interest in natural history led him to the preparation and exhibition of natural history specimens.  He worked with John A. Morden collecting specimens in Bexar County, Texas in 1884.  The following year he and Gustave Toudouze were hired to prepare and exhibit specimens in the Texas pavilion at the New Orleans World Fair.

Attwater married Lucy Mary Watts, a widow with two children, on December 31, 1885.  They never had children together and the family moved to London, Ontario.  We get the first inklings of Attwater’s enthusiasm for museum exhibits when he opened a small museum in 1886.  Unfortunately, it did not prosper and closed the following year.  During those few years in London, Ontario he must have found time for singing.  A review in a local paper there singled him out as a fine soloist.

railroad
Creative Commons License Photo credit:
Beaverton Historical Society

In 1889, the family finally moved to Texas where Attwater again tried beekeeping for a short while in Sherman before settling in San Antonio.  The next decade saw Attwater really start to come into his own as a naturalist.  He collected specimens throughout the state and lectured and wrote on agriculture and natural history.  He found employment preparing exhibits of Texan wildlife and natural products at fairs and expositions.  When he became the agricultural and industrial agent for the Southern Pacific Railroad in 1900 the Attwaters moved once again, this time for good, to Houston.

By the time Attwater had relocated to Houston he had already gained recognition and respect from other naturalists and scientists.  In particular, the ornithological collections he made in Bexar County in 1892 received a great deal of attention.  His field notes were published in the Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History and he provided notes for several other books. 

He was elected a director of the National Audubon Societyin 1900 and re-elected for another five year term in 1905.  It was also during this time that Attwater became known for his conservation efforts.  He was instrumental in the passage of the 1903 Model Game Law.  Four years later he served on the game-law committee which recommended hunters’ licenses be required for resident and non-resident hunters and that the revenue from the licenses and fines be restricted exclusively for game protection and propagation.  When he retired from the railroad in 1913 he immersed himself completely in the study of natural history.

Surprisingly, Attwater was not a 1909 charter member of the Houston Scientific Society, which I wrote about in an earlier post as the organization that would one day become HMNS.  But at some point, he sent out brochures for the sale and disposal of his self-titled “Museum of Natural History and Other Specimens.” Today, HMNS has several copies of this undated brochure and also a copy of another undated brochure simply titled “Exhibit of Products and Resources of South Texas.” 

I mention the second brochure because it solicits a larger Texas audience, while the first targets Houston specifically.  What is certain is that in January 1916, there was an exhibition of “The Attwater Exhibit: Texas Samples and Specimens” at City Hall here in Houston.  (A confusing note adds that it is the gift of The Progressive League to the city.  I’ve not yet discerned if the exhibit fee perhaps was borne by the Progressive League or if the League actually bought the collection exhibited, though I lean towards the former.) 

In the July 28, 1917 edition of The Houstonian, an unsigned editorial pleads for Houstonians to not lose the valuable “Atwater (sic) Museum” to Dallas or San Antonio.  The founders of the Witte Museum in San Antonio purchased a collection from Attwater in the 1922/23.  I’m still researching which collection went to San Antonio.  But I did find notes from the Houston City Library dated June 2, 1922 which contain the first mention of Sigmund Westheimer offering to purchase the Attwater collection (whichever one it was) and donate it to the Library and the City of Houston.

prairie-chicken
Creative Commons License Photo credit: Designatednaphour

H.P. Attwater died September 25, 1931; his grave is at the Hollywood Cemetery on North Main.  The Attwaters lived at 2120 Genesse Street and although it’s known that his widow was still living there in 1940, sadly no house stands at that address today. 

However H.P. Attwater’s collections and legacy live on.  From a quick and very unacademic Google search I found specimens that he collected in the collections of the Witte, Smithsonian, Field museum, Dallas Museum of Natural History, Los Angeles County Museum, American Museum of Natural History, the British Museum, and of course here at HMNS.  His field notes and articles can be found online.  Several species were named in his honor, the most well-known in Texas being the Attwater’s Greater Prairie Chicken.  Today, conservationists continue Attwater’s early conservation work in ongoing efforts to conserve the Prairie Chicken and its natural habitat.  This early naturalist and his work loom large still.

I want candy! (boom boom boom ba-dum boom)

Candy can be a useful teaching tool, even if you don’t advocate eating it. It’s well known, comes in lots of varieties, and it’s cheap if you buy it in bulk. It can also be used after its expiration date – great for construction, not consumption. I have used it to illustrate cell and organ structure; architectural design and geometric structures; and, by far my most favorite, dichotomous keys and taxonomy.

Candy Cell Labeled

Test plant cell model

I was first introduced to taxonomy in high school. We had to know the classification of every animal we caught for Marine Biology or dissected in Biology. It wasn’t until college, when we were given the oddest assortment of corks, stoppers, nuts, bolts, nails and screws, that I was introduced to dichotomous keys directly. I am addicted to sorting and organizing, so that assignment was one I thoroughly enjoyed. I had to determine relationships, categorize each “specimen,” name it, and create a key so that anyone could figure out which specimen was which. Loved it!

Years later, in a Texas Master Naturalist training class, an instructor used a simple candy dichotomous key to show us how the key worked before letting us tackle the identification of fish. Have you ever noticed the chin barbels on a croaker? I almost missed them. Dichotomous keys can help scientists to identify field specimen and hopefully new species as well.
The idea to use candy to ease the uninitiated into dichotomous keys was brilliant! So of course I borrowed the idea to use with kids. Now, with kids I kept it simple: “use this key to identify the unknown piece of candy – your ‘specimen.'”

To make sure it worked, I made up names for the candy. Almost everyone knows what a Hershey’s kiss is, but what about Smackus pennsylvius? It’s the name I came up with for the kiss – Hershey’s HQ is in Pennsylvania and in cartoons a kiss comes with a pucker-smack sound, hence Smackus (there are a lot of different Hershey kisses, worth their own genus) and pennsylvius after their origin. You can get a lot more complicated by assigning other species names to each kiss, since they do vary and I assume cannot interbreed. I used the original kiss in the key, so went with the origin for the species name.

Before I get too carried away (and I will) here is a simple key I created for one class. See if you can follow the key below to find the names of Smarties, Jolly Ranchers, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, Candy Cane and Mar’s Minis Mix (mixed bag mini Mars brand bars).

Candy samples for dichotomous key

In any dichotomous key, you always start at #1. Like a choose-your-own-adventure story, you are given two paths from which to choose. Each number has 2 choices, or characteristics, that describe the specimen. Each step usually gives you an answer or a direction (go to #3). You may skip a step in a key based on the directions you follow. If your specimen doesn’t fit into either characteristic, go back a step and see if you made the right choice. By observing carefully, you can get the right answers. Of course if your specimen doesn’t fit at all, you may have discovered a new species!

1a. Wrapper is metallic material
1b. Wrapper is non-metallic material
go to #2
go to #3
2a. Shape is circular
2b. Shape is rectangular
Gooberis moosi
Rufusastrum micros
3a. Packaged in groups
3b. Packaged individually
Tarticus owlii
go to #4
4a. Multiple colors present
4b. Multiple colors absent
Noelia crutchii
Bombre merrii

See if you can reason out the names once you have matched them up with their candy. I used my imagination, a good dose of silliness (good for the heart) and some actual Latin roots to come up with these names. The great thing about Latin is you can have a lot of fun trying to pronounce it as well! I’ll give answers if you are interested – please comment.

This is a very basic key; it only lists 5 specimens. which could suggest that there are only 5 species of candy. We know that isn’t the case, but remember that this was for kids and maybe the first time they had tried this.

To actually try and classify (and name) all of the candy you can find in a grocery store gets a lot more complicated. But for someone addicted to classification or candy, it sounds to me like a good time. Happy sorting!