Portrait of Thomas Greene. (Taken from Donald G. Mikulic (1991) Milwaukee’s Gentlemen Paleontologists.)

The Thomas A. Greene Memorial Museum of Milwaukee-Downer College holds a unique place among museums in that it was built and presented to the College for the purpose of housing a very extensive private collection of minerals and fossils. The mineral collection contains not only a large number of perfect specimens of the usual forms, but also fine specimens of the rarer occurrences. It includes examples of nearly all of the minerals described in Dana’s Mineralogy, and thus is especially adapted to the use of students. The paleontological collection of about 75,000 fossils is particularly rich in forms found in the Niagara and Hamilton rocks of southeastern Wisconsin. Many specimens were secured from a region in which but few collectors have worked and from quarries that are now closed. It is unusual for a college the size of Milwaukee-Downer to possess as complete a mineralogical collection and as comprehensive and detailed a fossil group as here presented. At the time of Mr. Greene’s death, it was considered the most valuable collection of its kind west of Philadelphia. With the belief that so vast an amount of material illustrative of the former life of this region should remain within the locality of its origin, the heirs, Mrs. H.A.J. Upham and Mr. Howard Greene, decided to entrust it to the College.


The mineral collection stands out as exceptional because of Mr. Greene’s devotion to his purpose. He possessed a keen scientific mind, good judgement, and artistic taste, with boundless patience and perseverance in his effort to obtain just the specimens he desired. His aim was not to have as large a collection as possible, but to have it complete and perfect, –the best of its type. He devoted his leisure from business and his means to visiting mineral-bearing regions and purchasing, from other collectors, rocks which he especially desired. He took great pride in securing specimens from those quarters of the globe where they were not thought to exist or were most rare.

In several instances, Mr. Greene was fortunate in securing unusual mineral contributions from sources no longer available. He happened to be in the East during the constructing of the Bergen Hill Tunnel in New Jersey, which disclosed beautiful and valuable specimens soon to be hidden by the encrusting smoke of trains. Representatives of these exquisite minerals were added to his collection. In his visits to the copper mines of Lake Superior, he obtained unusual specimens of copper in its various chemical combinations and in crystalline forms. From Thunder Bay, on the north shore of the lake, he gathered a number of large and small crystals of amethyst, varying in color from dark red to light and deep purple. From Renfrew, Canada, he got a large number of crystals of apatite.

The ores represented include some of the most rare, as tungsten, molybdenum, vanadium, cobalt, nickel, together with mercury and aluminum compounds. Of special interest are beautiful crystals of stibnite (antimony) from Japan. The collection of semi-precious stones has artistic charm, as well as scientific value; it consits of malachite, lapis-lazuli, smoky quartz, rose quartz, tourmaline, garnet, labradorite, fluorite, beryl, and turquoise matrix, in the rough and polished forms. There is a fine representation of the different types of agates, in which the lapidary has aided the scientist by disclosing, through the polished surface, the formation of the geode. Some of these agates have the hollow center and other have centers filled with wonderful crystals, around which have been deposited, through the ages, concentric rings of material of different degrees of thickness and of varying color. A portion of these specimens has the single center, but some of them contain several separate centers with concentric rings.

If any specimen can be cited as of special popular interest, it is a piece of meteoric iron secured from a meteor which fell in Washington County, Wisconsin. The impact with the earth broke it into fragments which were buried in the ground. One of these fragments was presented to Mr. Greene by his friend, the late scientist, I.A. Lapham. The peculiar crystalline form, as disclosed by the lapidary in a polished surface, distinguishes meteoric from terrestrial iron.

The mineral collection is being catalogued and arranged in such a manner as to be most useful to college and high school classes in physiography, chemistry, and economic geology, as well as to specialists in mineralogy and geology. Descriptive labels are being prepared, and every effort is being made to present the specimens in such a manner as to stimulate interest not only in the student but in the general public, as well. Its beauty, alone, makes an appeal even to those who are meagerly informed.

Mr. Greene was most active in gathering his fossils in the eighties and nineties, a period when many quarries in Milwaukee and vicinity were being opened. He was particularly fortunate in his search, for the upper layers of rock proved to be the most prolific. His collection assumes even greater value in that many of these quarries are now closed and others are being worked in lower non-fossil bearing strata.

In company with a friend, a physician, Mr. Greene became a frequent visitor at the quarries near Milwaukee, and they interested the workmen in finding and saving fossils for them. The workmen persistently believed that these strange formations were ground up and used as medicine, and they attached to these collectors all the powers of the medicine man. So great and interesting were his finds, that he resolved to secure as complete a collection of Niagara specimens as possible. To assist in this, he made the acquaintance of other paleontologists, who worked in the Silurian beds. Thus he extended his field of activity to Racine, Wauwatosa, Cedarburg, Waukesha, and Ashford, Wisconsin; Cook County, Illinois; Waldron, Indiana; and Niagara County, New York. Fossils from other areas and of other ages are included in the collection, though by far the larger number come from the Milwaukee region and the areas mentioned. One of the few outcrops of rocks of Devonian age in the Middle West occurs just north of Milwaukee, in what was known as the Cement Quarry. Mr. Greene had a financial interest in this quarry and was a frequent visitor. Consequently, he secured a large number of Devonian fossils, including plant and fish remains. Some of these are new to science and have never been described. Silurian brachiopods, cephalopods, gastropods, trilobites, crinoids, and corals are represented in large numbers.

The great geologist and scholar, Rollin D. Salisbury, attracted by the exceptional character of the collection, came from the University of Chicago to give the address fo the evening at the dedication of the Museum in 1913. He commented particularly upon the value of museum collections: “The materials of museums do more than stimulate general interest. They may in some cases be made to yield important information of worth which cannot at the beginning be estimated. There is no way of knowing what important secrets of nature are locked up in the materials of museums.”

The truth of these statements is borne out in examining the contributions which some of the specimens of the Greene Museum have made to the science of paleontolgoy. Professor Hall, of the American Museum of Natural History of New York City, whose collection may well be considered the standard reference collection of all workers in North American paleozoic paleontology, 1 was indebted to the Greene Collection for considerable material in illustrating BRACHIOPODA in volume eight of the Paleontology of New York.2 In describing Parastrophia (gen. nov.), 3 he says: “This type of structure is continued upward into the faunas of the Niagara group, and in the dolomites of southern Wisconsin occur a number of interesting species, our knowledge of which has been derived from the elaborate collections made in that region by Thomas A. Greene, Esp., of Milwaukee. Here are at least three species which are new to science, all of them being preserved as most instructive internal casts.” As one specimen is called “Parastrophia Greenii,” it is assumed that the name was derived from the owner, Thomas A. Greene.

In the same study, Professor Hall says of Capellinia mira (species and genus new): “This remarkable shell is virtually a Pentamerus oblongus. … The single species observed, which has not before been described, has been studied from a number of examples obtained from the dolomites of Niagara age, in the vicinity of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and loaned for study and use in the preparation of this volume by Thomas A. Greene, Esq., of that city. It has not been observed elsewhere.” 4

Dr. August Foerste, of Dayton, Ohio, a paleontologist of national fame, has visited the Museum several times, has studied sections of it, and has made casts of some of its fossils. He says that the collection contains a number of specimens os such a character that they establish without doubt certain truths which have previously been under discussion.

These cases of scientists’ use of the Greene Collection are evidences of its worth. As other paleontologists may have opportunity to study, other important discoveries may be made which may contribute to the advancement of the science of paleontology. Dr. Salisbury, in the address mentioned above, discussed the scope of this science and the significance of fossils in the study of human life of the past and present: “The science of paleontology is nothing less than the panoramic display of the life of the ages, the expression of organic law. … It is of the development of living beings, and the laws which control their transformation. … If the laws which have governed the evolution of life in the past were well understood, what might not be the effect on human life, in which our greatest interest centers? … Fossils show us that there have been times of degeneracy among various sorts of life in the past, and that nature has more than once found a way to curb it. If this has been done once, it can be done again. The problem is to lay hold of organic law with such a grasp that nature’s method of procedure is apprehended. Once apprehended, we may be able to supply the conditions which shall speed the processes which in nature are very slow. It is not too much to believe that the laws which are probably deducible from past life as revealed in fossils, and which are already understood in part, are sound, and that they are applicable to life, even to human life in our day. In this Museum, there are, I doubt not, abundant representatives of Silurian brachopods and trilobites, gathered from the Silurian rocks of this vicinity. If one were to speak of the sociology of the Silurian trilobites today, the expression would occasion a smile. But some day we or our descendants will speak of it with as little concern as we speak of human sociology in this generation.”

In discussing the Greene Collection in particular, Dr. Salisbury said: “Made with care and Intelligence, such collections are always of value. Properly displayed and properly utilized, they stimulate interest in the things they represent, and interest in any subject is the first step to progress in it. Every city should have its museum, local as to its materials, if it cannot be more, and every such museum should be made as useful as possible to the community in whose midst it is placed. Such I am sure will be the purpose of those to whose hands the care of these collections now passes.”

It is hoped that the Thomas A. Greene Memorial Museum of Milwaukee-Downer College may become of more service to the great paleontologists of America, as well as to the College and the community, that the institution may thus be able to fulfill the trust which the possession of such unusual material involves, and that the College may in this way make its contribution to the scientific world.

1 Edgar Teller in Bull, Wis. Nat. Hist. Soc., vol. 9, No. 4 (Oct., 1911), p.173

2 Ibid, p.173

3 Paleontology of New York, vol.8, part 2, pp. 221-222.

4 Ibid, p. 249.

Milwaukee, Wisconsin -- Novemeber, 1924