Peale, Titian Ramsay

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(b. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 2 November 1799; d. Philadelphia, 13 March 1885)

natural history.

Titian Peale, youngest son of Charles Wilson peale and his second wife, Elizabeth DePeyster Peale, knew Philadelphia’s scientific men from childhood. His formal education ended at age thirteen. At sixteen he was sketching for volume I of Thomas Say’s American Entomology(1824). At eighteen he was elected to the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia.

Peale’s first natural history collecting expedition was in 1818–1818, to Florida and the Sea Islands of Georgia, with Thomas Say, George Ord, and William Maclure. In 1819–1820 he was assistant naturalist with Stephen Long’s expedition to the Rocky Mountains, making 122 sketches and drawings.

During 1822–1838 Peale was employed chiefly at the Philadelphia Museum. In the winter of 1824–1825 he collected in Florida for Charles Lucien Bonaparte and then drew all but one of the plates for volume I of Bonaparte’s American Ornithology (1825); many of the specimens from which the plates were drawn were of Peale’s collecting. He visited Maine in 1829 and returned from a trip to Colombia (1830–1832) with 500 bird skins, as well as drawings and butterflies, for exhibition in the Philadelphia Museum. In 1833 he issued a prospectus for what he hoped would be his most important publication, Lepidoptera Americana, temporarily abandoned because it was too expensive. He was elected to the American Philosophical Society in 1833.

Peale’s great opportunity came when he was appointed as a naturalist on the United States South Seas Surveying and Exploring Expedition (the Wilkes expedition) of 1838–1842. On the homeward journey, in June 1841, one of the expedition’s ships, the Peacock, was wrecked. A large proportion, and the best, of Peale’s bird and animal specimens, all of his butterflies, and an extensive collection of native artifacts were lost — the results of three years’ collecting. Still other specimens, which had been shipped lack, were improperly handled. Bureaucratic restrictions, lack of library facilities, and Peale’s sometimes difficult temper and financial problems combined with quarrels over the quality of engravings to present difficulties during the preparation of his book, which Charles Wilkes titled Mammalia and Ornithology(1848).

Wilkes objected to peale’s preface, in which he said that although the government specified that only new species should be described, he felt it would have been more appropriate also to record times and places of observations of known species. There was some criticism of Peale’s nomenclature, and therefore Wilkes suppressed the volume shortly after its publication. In 1852 John Cassin, a brilliant taxonomist, was appointed to rewrite it. In his Mammalogy and Ornithology(1858) the classifications and names of the species are often different, but Peale’s field observations are quoted extensively. According to Harley Harris Bartlett, “Cassin went too far afield to find species to which peale’s might be reduced, and the more modern conception of geographic species might justify the reinstatement of [a number of] peale’s speices” (“Reports of the Wilkes expedition,” p.689). It was a crushing professional defeat for Peale.

Peale was later an examiner in the U.S. Patent Office (1849–1872), did amateur photograph, wrote occasional articles, painted, and worked on his manuscript on butterflies. He was a passionate and careful field observer and collector, rather than a “closet naturalist” or skilled taxonomist, at a time when questions of synonymy and nomenclature were deemed of increasing importance. Consequently, he often observed and collected species that others subsequently recorded and described.


I. Original Works. Peale’s papers are in the collections of the American Philosophical Society, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, and the Library of Congress. The American Museum of Natural History, New York, possesses Peale’s unpublished MS “The Butterflies of North America, Diurnal Lepidoptera, Whence They Come; Where They Go; and What They Do,” with 3 vols. of accompanying drawings and paintings. His Lepidoptera Americana. Prospectus (Philadelphia, 1833) and Mammalia and Ornithology, vol. VIII of the Scientific Reports of the U.S. Exploring Expedition of 1838–1842 (Philadelphia, 1848), are extremely rare.

II. Secondary Literature. Jessie poesch, Tition Ramsay Peale, 1799–1885, and His Journals of the Wilkes Expedition, which is Memoirs of the American Philosophical Society, 52 (1961), an extensive bibliography. See also Hearley Harris Bartlett, “The Reports of the Wilkes Expedition, and the Work of the Specialists in Science,” in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society,82 (1940), 601–705; Mary E.Cooley, “The exploring Expedition in the pacific,” ibid., 707–719; Clifford Merrill Drury, Diary of Titian Ramsay Peale (Los Angeles, 1957); Daniel C. Haskell, The United States Exploring Expedition, 1838–1842, and Its Publications 1844–1874—a Bibliography (New York, 1942); and Asa Orrin Weese, ed., “The Journal of Titian Ramsay Peale, Pioneer Naturalist,” in Missouri Historical Review,41 (1947), 147–163, 266–284.

Jessie Poesch