Vanuxem Collection Research by Nathan Corbitt ′11 on Display in Barret Library
Publication Date: 5/14/2009
Rhodes history major Nathan Corbitt ’11, who is being called a “Raider of the Lost Archive,” has unearthed information about the collection of minerals and fossils that belonged to prominent mineralogist and geologist Lardner Vanuxem and that has been owned by Rhodes College since the 1850s.
Vanuxem died in 1848, the year the college was founded. With 18,000 specimens, “his cabinet of minerals and fossils was claimed to be the largest, finest and most systematically arranged private collection in the United States.”
The collection was acquired by William M. Stewart who became president of the college in 1853 when it was located in Clarksville, Tenn. The Vanuxem collection is considered to be the college’s oldest surviving teaching apparatus and even today is used in geology courses.
“Liberal arts colleges like Rhodes have put a high priority on providing the best scientific tools,” says Corbitt who himself completed a thorough field geology course while a student at The Westminster Schools in Atlanta, Ga.
There are a few hundred items remaining from the Vanuxem collection, and with his 2008 fall semester history department internship in the Rhodes College Archives, Corbitt set out to find out what happened to the other thousands of fossils, minerals and shells. He began an exhaustive examination of documents including early board minutes, presidential correspondence, insurance papers, and geology course listings in old catalogues from 1853 to 1925.
As a result, he found information about the collection as well as Rhodes’ history such as:
- During the Civil War, the collection was nearly destroyed when the Union Army occupied the Clarksville campus.
- In 1896, the U.S. House of Representatives paid restitution to the college for wartime damage including the destruction of scientific apparatus and mineralogical and geological cabinets.
- In the early 1920s, some of the shells from the Vanuxem collection were destroyed or scorched in a fire that consumed Robb Hall dormitory (Clarksville campus). The collection was stored there before the college moved in 1925 to its current Memphis location.
Corbitt also found what is believed to be the college’s earliest known catalogue.
With Rhodes staff members Bill Short and Elizabeth Gates and faculty member Dr. Jennifer Houghton, Corbitt has created an exhibition that showcases the research he conducted and its greater implications to Rhodes and the scientific community. The display currently is on view through June in the Barret Library during normal hours of operation.
The display cases are located on the main level near the staircase and also near the Rhodes Archives Room. The exhibition includes items from the Vanuxem collection such as quartz crystal, blue kyanite, white crylolite, barite, and some of the remaining scorched shells.