Scientist of the Day - Charles Wilkes
Charles Wilkes, an American naval officer, was born Apr. 3, 1798. Wilkes was chosen to lead the first American scientific voyage of exploration, known as the United States Exploring Expedition, which sailed from Virginia in 1838 and returned in 1842. A novel feature of the expedition was the presence of 9 "scientifics"--civilian scientists who were supposed to observe and collect specimens en route, and included future notables such as Titian Ramsay Peale and James Dwight Dana. Wilkes, however, had little use for civilians of any kind, and thought all the scientific work could be better done by naval officers (as was the case in the British Royal Navy). The voyage was originally to have had 32 civilians, and Wilkes pruned that down to 9, taking on himself the jobs of astronomer, meteorologist, cartographer, and surveyor. So there was considerable tension on the voyage, with the scientists complaining bitterly in their diaries that they weren't allowed to do their jobs. And Wilkes was later court-martialed for overly-harsh discipline on the voyage.
Nevertheless, the expedition brought or sent back thousands of specimens, which eventually became part of the Smithsonian Institution when it was founded shortly thereafter. Wilkes published a five-volume Narrative (1845) of the expedition, with some spectacular images of the ice-filled southern seas (see images above). We displayed a 2nd edition of the Narrative in our 2008 exhibition, Ice: A Victorian Romance. While the exhibition was still in place, we acquired the first edition, with its large engravings, and so we added an extra page about the new acquisition to the online version of the exhibit.
The fourth image above shows a forest in New South Wales (Australia), and the fifth is a frontispiece portrait of Wilkes.
Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City