Lyceum of Natural History

In 1835, Prof. Albert Hopkins and a group of Williams College undergraduates founded the Lyceum of Natural History.  Organized originally as a secret society, Phi Beta Theta, the members almost immediately dropped this designation.  The stated purpose of the society was “the study of the natural sciences, and the prosecution of antiquarian researches.”  It is interesting to note that during this period the Williams curriculum offered the students few lectures and no laboratory classes in the natural sciences.

The Lyceum met every two weeks, at which time the members delivered papers written on various scientific topics.  Members also cataloged specimens, the majority of which were collected by the students themselves.  Professors Albert Hopkins and Paul A. Chadbourne led most of the Lyceum’s expeditions for specimen collection, including voyages to:

1835                Bay of Fundy
1855                Newfoundland
1857                Florida
1860                Labrador and Greenland
1867                South America
1871                Honduras

These expeditions secured the Lyceum’s reputation, both in the United States and in Europe.

In 1855, the members moved their records and collections into Jackson Hall, a building which had been donated by Nathan Jackson expressly to house the Lyceum.  With the advent of a biology laboratory in 1882, the practical necessity of the Lyceum was diminished.  However, the society continued periodically to hold meetings until 1909, and the Botanical Section of the Lyceum, organized in 1910, met until at least 1914.

For more information on the history of the Lyceum of Natural History, see the Gulielmensian (1910), pp. 39-44; “Stories of Old Williamstown,” mss., p. 28; and W.M. Smallwood’s “The Williams Lyceum of Natural History,” in The New England Quarterly, Sept. 1937, pp. 553-557.