I have to admit that my taxidermic epiphany came when someone sent me a link to a website that features odd taxidermy specimens (the internet: gotta love it). It suddenly occurred to me that the practice of stuffing dead animals is rather strange when you think about it. I had to learn more.
However, I do have a short attention span—at least where mounted, stuffed animals are concerned—and after I learned that a woman named Martha Maxwell is responsible for modern taxidermy as we know it, I became way more interested in her than in taxidermy. It happens.
Apparently, according to Notable Women Scientists, “Maxwell is credited as the first taxidermist to pose specimens in a natural position, thus ensuring that natural history displays in museums had authenticity. She also advocated her belief that in such museums, animals should be grouped together by the habitats in which they are found.” I find this fascinating; it never occurred to me that natural history displays were ever grouped otherwise.
Also fascinating: how were specimens posed BEFORE Martha Maxwell and her common sense came along? Unnatural positions?!
Other interesting (and tragic) facts about Martha Maxwell:
- “Though she was a strict vegetarian and did not enjoy killing animals, Maxwell believed that taxidermy was her way of preserving nature.”
- “She discovered a new subspecies of owl, which is now known as the Rocky Mountain Screech Owl: “In 1877, a Smithsonian ornithologist named this animal Scops asio maxwelliae for her, the first woman to be so honored.” Go Martha!
- The Colorado legislature sent her to the Centennial Exhibition of 1876 in Philadelphia, along with her 47 taxidermied animals and 224 taxidermied birds. Only get this: the legislature backed out of their promise to pay for the collection to come back, so Maxwell was forced to stay!
- She wrote a book called On the Plains, and Among the Peaks; or, How Mrs. Maxwell Made her Natural History Collection. According to Notable Women Scientists, “it did not sell well.”
- She then ran a bath house-museum, which was not fruitful, and died of blood poisoning from an ovarian tumor. If that isn’t bad enough, “her collection fell into uncaring hands and eventually was lost.”
Next time you go to the natural history museum and admire the collection, think of Martha Maxwell, won’t you?
"Martha Maxwell." Notable Women Scientists. Gale Group, 2000. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale, 2010.