Register of Historic Landmarks

Greene Collection History

(taken from the original application for the National Historic Landmarks)

Thomas Arnold Greene, a pioneer Milwaukee businessman, was born in Providence, Rhode Island, on November 2, 1827.1 At the age of 16, he began training in a drug store, and in 1848, moved to Milwaukee where he purchased his own store.      Soon after, he formed a partnership with Henry H. Button to found what would become a very successful wholesale drug business, making Greene a wealthy man and a prominent business figure. At the time of his death, Greene was president of both the Greene and Button Company and the Milwaukee Gas Company and was on the board of directors of the Milwaukee Cement Company, the Northwestern National Fire Insurance Company, and the Wisconsin Trust Company. Demonstrating his lifelong interest in natural history, Greene was a member of the Milwaukee Natural History Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Wisconsin Academy of Science, Arts and Letters, and a charter member and president of the Milwaukee Public Museum, which he had helped found.

Preoccupied with his growing company, Greene had little time for his childhood interest in geology and botany until 1878 when his physician prescribed a relaxing hobby to relieve the stress of his business activities. Although he had collected minerals as a youth in Rhode Island, he found few minerals in the Milwaukee area and turned his attention to collecting fossils in the local stone quarries. Soon, Greene decided he would strive to assemble the largest and most comprehensive fossil collection possible from the Milwaukee (and later Chicago) area. He continued to pursue this ambitious goal until his death on September 7, 1894.

Greene collected fossils primarily from the richly fossiliferous Silurian reef rock, which was quarried extensively in the area for lime and stone. These Milwaukee area reefs were the first fossil reefs recognized in North America and some of the earliest known anywhere in the world. Increase A. Lapham’s, Wisconsin’s pioneer naturalist, discovery of the abundant and diverse fossils in these reefs in the 1840s attracted the first geologists to the area, forming the basis for classic studies by such eminent geologists as James Hall and Thomas Chamberlin. Greene’s collection is the largest and most comprehensive fossil collection from these classic reefs, and as such, provides an irreplaceable record of their nature now that they have been largely destroyed by urban development.

Although Greene collected many specimens personally, he, like most other amateur naturalists, was also able to purchase fossils from quarry workers. Receiving a dollar or two from Greene for good specimens effectively doubled their wages and encouraged the quarry workers to become avid “fossil collectors.” At some localities, Greene was able to arrange for the quarry operator to work, and even blast in, particularly fossiliferous areas of stone pits and to “hire” quarry workers for a day of collecting.

Greene also traded for fossils with scientists and other collectors and purchased specimens from dealers throughout the country as part of a nationwide network of amateurs and professionals. Greene’s correspondence and records detail these transactions with dealers and collectors, providing invaluable information about collecting sites, specimen sources, purchase prices, and personal relationships. They also furnish important insight into how both private and larger museum collections were assembled during this time period. Greene also corresponded with, and loaned specimens to, noted paleontologists of the day, documenting the importance of amateur naturalists to the work of professional scientists. Fossils from his collection have been illustrated in the scientific literature, and in appreciation of Greene’s cooperation and in recognition of his fine specimens, scientists named several species of fossils from his collection after him. Over the years, many prominent paleontologists, including James Hall, Charles Wachsmuth, R. P. Whitfield, John Clarke, Frank Springer, Percy Raymond, August Foerste, and Robert Shrock, have used Greene’s collection in their work.

Greene purchased most of the minerals in his collection. Many specimens are still associated with the original dealer labels, whereas sales invoices and correspondence with the mineral dealers is preserved in Greene’s records. Because his collection was assembled during the hey-day of mining in North America, and because he maintained a desire to assemble a comprehensive collection, Greene acquired many rare and unusual minerals from famous mining districts around the world as well as from obscure mining localities that have been “lost” or generally forgotten.

His dedication, determination, and wealth allowed Greene to attain his goal of assembling the largest fossil collection in the region. Between 1878 and 1894, he spent more than $16,000 on his collection, including the wooden cases in which it is still housed. In total, he accumulated 13,000 mineral specimens and an estimated 75,000 fossils. It was acknowledged that Greene possessed one of the most valuable paleontological and mineralogical private collections in this country. At the time of his death, his collection was described as “the largest and most complete private collection west of Philadelphia and it still is the most complete collection of fossils covering the region tributary to Milwaukee. It would be impossible ever to duplicate the collection of fossils, for the reason that most of the quarries from which they were gathered during the long course of the years have been permanently closed and filled and there is no likelihood that they will ever be worked again.”2 This latter statement holds true especially today. Of the Greene fossil collection, Paleontologist Percy Raymond of Harvard University stated that “the Day Collection [at Harvard], bought in Milwaukee, upon which he had been working, is the best collection of any in the country, with the exception of this (the Greene collection], which far surpasses it.”3

Greene is an excellent example of the “gentleman” or amateur naturalist, a social and scientific phenomenon, primarily of the nineteenth century, when the collection and study of natural history specimens for one’s “cabinet” was a popular and socially acceptable pastime. The amateur naturalist was typically male, enjoyed fairly high social standing, and was successful enough in his chosen profession to have the time and money to devote to natural history pursuits. The quality of their activities ranged widely from random collecting to fine scientific research and embraced a diversity of natural history subjects, including archaeology, botany, zoology, and geology. Because of the time, effort, and money that the amateur naturalists could lavish on their collections, they, rather than the fledgling museums of the day, were the ones able to accumulate large numbers of high quality specimens and, commonly, their cabinets later formed the nucleus for larger institutional museum collections. A formal advanced education in newly founded scientific disciplines, such as geology, was difficult to obtain, and it was difficult to find employment in these fields. Therefore, the few professional scientists in the U.S., who lived chiefly in the eastern part of the country at a time when transportation was difficult and expensive, relied heavily on these local amateur naturalists to supply specimens, observations, and information in order to learn about the natural history of the expanding western frontier.

James Hall, the most famous paleontologist of the time, exemplifies the mutually beneficial relationship between the professional scientist and the amateur naturalists. As a major part of his research, Hall borrowed, bought, and traded fossil specimens and recorded observations made by these naturalists across the country; he also employed some of these naturalists as collectors. As one of the very few professional paleontologists, Hall had a huge geographic area to study and was dependent on the help of naturalists who made extensive local collections to determine fossil distribution and diversity.  At the same time, the naturalists needed Hall’s expertise in identifying their fossils thereby increasing the scientific value and respectability of their cabinets. Hall relied on Greene as an excellent source of research material during the 1880s, and on several occasions visited Milwaukee to study Greene’s fossil collection, borrowing 400 specimens for use in his last major paleontologic work.

Unfortunately, the contribution and scientific importance of the amateur naturalists and their collections have been largely forgotten. Although some received published acknowledgement for their contributions from the scientists they aided, after their deaths, their beloved “cabinets” were typically discarded by their heirs, dispersed among family members, sold to dealers, or donated to larger museums where they have lost their identity as individual collections. The role of the amateur naturalist in scientific research has declined substantially since the turn-of­ the-century, primarily because a decrease in quarrying and mining has resulting in fewer collecting sites and an increase in the number of professional scientists whose research has become more theoretical.

What is exceptional about Greene’s collection is that it has retained its scientific and historical integrity for 100 years. Most specimens are still accompanied by Greene’s handwritten, specially produced labels, some bearing annotations by prominent scientists of the time. Many of the specimens remain in the order that Greene originally filed them within each drawer and they are still stored in the wooden cases he had custom-made for his “cabinet”. Furthermore, extensive correspondence between Greene and scientists, fellow collectors, and dealers provides excellent documentation of the means and sources he used to assemble his collection, which were typical of amateur naturalists. Most importantly, Greene’s collection escaped incorporation into a larger museum’s collection as was the fate of many other naturalists’ collections. Instead, Greene’s collection resides in a college museum building erected by his heirs expressly to house it, protected by the rigorous rules of maintenance and use that they established. Therefore, this intact collection with all its accompanying documentation provides an unequalled example of a nineteenth century amateur naturalist collection.

After Greene’s death, his family retained the collection in his home until 1911 when his son, Col. Howard Greene, and daughter, Mary Greene Upham, an alumna of Milwaukee-Downer College, donated it to the school. Mary, who had accompanied her father on collecting expeditions and was acquainted with the scientists who visited his collection, also studied Wisconsin geology, about which she lectured and wrote.4 The collection was donated under the condition that it be housed in the special fireproof museum building she would fund, that geology be taught at the college, that scientists be allowed to study the collection, and that the collection be kept separate and intact, with the idea being “to safeguard its high quality and its unity, representing the work of one man.”5 Although several other institutions, including  Yale University, Harvard University, the University of Chicago, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, were interested in acquiring the collection at that time,6  Greene’s heirs gave the collection to Milwaukee-Downer. They wanted it to remain in Milwaukee where they could ensure that the collection would be protected. At the time, Milwaukee-Downer, a pioneering female college, was the only school in Milwaukee that taught geology, but also, the Greene family had a long association with the college.

In 1912, Mary Upham contributed $10,000 toward the construction of a special fireproof museum building to house her father’s collection.7 A building erected expressly to house a museum was an unusual feature at most colleges and universities, and considerable effort went into planning and construction to make this a true museum building. To design it, the family commissioned the architect Alexander c. Eschweiler, Sr., who earlier had designed the Milwaukee-Downer College quadrangle buildings. Completed in March 1913, the museum was described as “harmoniz[ing] in material and style of architecture with other buildings of the college.”8 Greene’s collection of minerals and fossils occupied the main floor, whereas the lower floor had one large room for the college’s pre-existing natural history collection, as well as a small classroom with “experiment-tables for classes in geology and physiography.” Indeed, the Museum became an important focal point of science education, especially geology, at the college.

The Greene Memorial Museum was dedicated on October 31, 1913. Dr. Rollin Salisbury, world-famous scientist and professor of geology at the university of Chicago, presented a guest lecture. Margaret Louise Campbell, the Museum’s first curator and a recent graduate of the university of Chicago, described the Greene fossil and mineral collection as “the best in many respects of any that [she] had ever seen,” and that its placement at the school was “for the good of Downer College, citizens of Wisconsin and Milwaukee, and all lovers of nature everywhere.”9  She went on to trace the changes in women’s education over the years, noting that in the past women were thought able “to memorize, but not reason, and, therefore, were mainly confined to languages, history, and kindred studies” while “Milwaukee-Downer was one of the first colleges that taught science on a large scale to her students.” Campbell’s appointment, in itself, was unusual as most museum curators at the time were men. Subsequent curators at the Greene Museum were also women, continuing with Olive Thomas, another University of Chicago graduate, Carol Mason, and Katherine Greacen Nelson, who cared for the collection for more than 30 years. Nelson, a prominent geologic educator, had received her bachelor degree from Vassar and the first doctorate in geology at Rutgers University. Also, she was the first women to be awarded the Neil Miner Award for teaching excellence from the National Association of Geology Teachers for her work at Milwaukee-Downer and later the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Milwaukee-Downer College was a likely home for such an important collection and museum because of its progressive tradition in science education. The school was the result of an 1895 merger between two pioneering women’s colleges of early Wisconsin: Milwaukee College (formerly Milwaukee Female Seminary, 1848-50, Milwaukee Normal School and High School, 1850-52, Milwaukee Female College, 1853-1875) and Downer College of Fox Lake (formerly Wisconsin Female College, founded 1855). In 1848, Lucy Parsons established the Milwaukee Female Seminary with the purpose of fitting young women not only “to adorn the higher circles of society, but to meet the varied and practical responsibilities of life.”  Therefore, a women’s college had been chartered in Milwaukee years before the eastern colleges for women were established, with the exception of Mount Holyoke.10 The new school attracted the attention of Catherine Beecher, the pioneering crusader for women’s higher education and sister of abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe. Beecher began to reshape the Milwaukee Female Seminary according to her ground-breaking Beecher plan, which promoted raising the level of women’s instruction to a collegiate grade in order to educate women for a profession, especially teaching, resulting in the Milwaukee Normal School and High School. In 1874, the Milwaukee College introduced the Ladies’ Art and Science Class, a forerunner of adult continuing education. This popular lecture series was led by chemist Charles Farrar, first chairman of the science department at Vassar College and now president of the Milwaukee school, and was attended by several hundred Milwaukee women, including Mrs. Thomas Greene.11 In support of his belief that there should be no difference in the quality of education for men and women, Farrar dropped “Female” from the titles of both Vassar and Milwaukee colleges. Although the Milwaukee College suffered many setbacks and financial hardships, especially through the civil War years, it proved to be the only one of Catherine Beecher’s experimental schools across the country to survive.12

The Wisconsin Female College was founded in Fox Lake, Wisconsin, in 1855; its name was later changed to Downer College to honor its benefactor, Judge Jason Downer. The isolated rural location of Downer College had hindered its growth, and when its head Ellen Sabin, nationally renown educator, was offered the presidency of Milwaukee College in 1894, a merger between the two schools was proposed because of their similar educational goals. Construction of the new Milwaukee-Downer campus was begun in 1897.

Before 1860, women had few opportunities to pursue a college education.13 Most antebellum women’s colleges were religious academies where only literary courses were taught. Therefore, Milwaukee-Downer’s forerunners were among the first women’s colleges in general and, even more importantly, among the first that offered a true liberal arts education and science instruction. Geology was taught at these institutions almost continuously for more than a century, beginning with the Milwaukee Female Seminary in 1848.14

In 1852-53, a museum was founded at the Milwaukee Female college with establishment of a “cabinet of natural history.”15 A “Curiosity Society” was established in 1855 that included the “Rockites,” a group under the tutelage of Increase Lapham whose members studied Wisconsin geology and collected geological specimens to add to the cabinet. 16 The Greene Memorial Museum and collection are the descendants of this cabinet. The use of museum collections and natural history specimens was considered essential for education during the nineteenth and early twentieth century when well-illustrated books were a rarity and modern audio-visual aids were unknown. As was typical for many college museums, the Greene Museum and its forerunner became the repository for collections made by students and faculty from field trips and research. In general, college museums also grew by the donation of patrons, typically alumni. Records show that a number of prominent Milwaukee women donated their collections to the Greene Museum, demonstrating that not only gentlemen assembled natural history cabinets. Assembling a cabinet was socially acceptable for women as well as men, however, these cabinet collections were typically the only available scientific outlet for women.

In 1964, Milwaukee-Downer merged with Lawrence College and moved to Appleton, Wisconsin, becoming Lawrence University. It was decided that the Greene collection should remain where it was in order to avoid the risk of damage during a move and to preserve the original intent of the donors to keep the collection in Milwaukee where it had been collected and within the building erected expressly for the purpose of housing it. Consequently, the Greene Memorial Museum and collection was sold to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee along with the rest of the Milwaukee-Downer campus buildings. Most of the non-Greene Milwaukee-Downer museum collection had already been disseminated by this time, but fortunately, all the museum records, in addition to a few specimens and exhibit cases from that collection, remain in the Greene Museum today. The Greene Memorial Museum, the only Milwaukee-Downer structure still used for its original purpose, exists as an excellent example of a college museum from around the turn-of-the-century. A University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee report from May 1965, states that the museum is “a small building, but important in its usage” which “should be indefinitely preserved for the fine collection which it houses.”

Documentation of museum history and operations, including records for the Greene collection and Greene family history, is better than that available at most museums in the country dating from that time period. Classes and field trips are described, the use and operation of the Museum is outlined, the involvement of a women’s college museum in national meetings, such as the American Association of Museums, is detailed. Museum catalogues, Annual Reports, correspondence, and business papers from 1913 to the present are preserved. Specimens are accompanied by Greene’s original collection labels, and original dealer labels exist for the minerals and some fossils. Greene’s business papers and correspondence related to his collection, housed in the nearby University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee archives, are extensive. Greene’s personal library comprises approximately 200 books, including some rare volumes. All of this documentary evidence provides a remarkably clear view of the life of an amateur naturalist, the assemblage of such a collection, and the role of science education at a women’s college, as well as the function of a college museum during the early twentieth century.

Comprehensive and irreplaceable as the largest collection of Silurian reef fossils in North America, the value of Greene’s collection for paleontological research has increased. It has considerable historical and scientific importance for future research on the geology and paleontology of the Milwaukee and Chicago areas, and also has much to offer as a research tool addressing important questions in geology and the history of science. It contains fossils from classic localities that have vanished or are inaccessible. Because his documentation is so thorough, it is possible to determine the exact geographic location and stratigraphic horizon at which the specimens were collected. The collection is invaluable for taxonomic studies because it includes type specimens and large numbers of single species that can be used in population studies and modern taxonomic analyses. Along with this documentation, his comprehensive collecting and the intact condition of the collection has produced a collection invaluable for paleobio­ geography, palaeoecology, and biostratigraphy.     Although the time and money that Greene devoted to his collection might be duplicated only with great difficulty today, changes in the style of quarrying and mining due to mechanization make it impossible to gather the number and quality of specimens, and many of the quarries and mines they were collected from are closed. The Greene collection and museum is supported by detailed correspondence dealing with Greene’s specimen acquisition, collecting activities, and extensive business and family records. As such, it composes an important resource for the history of science and museums, social history, and Milwaukee history during the middle to late nineteenth century.

  1. Mikulic, Donald G., “Milwaukee’s gentlemen paleontologists.”            Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters Transactions, vol. 71, p. 5-20.
  2. Letter from Horace J. Upham to Ellen Sabin, February 3, 1911
  3. Quote from Percy Raymond in letter from Margaret Campbell to Mary Upham, June 20, 1913.
  4. Davis, E. U.     Memorial of Mary Upham Greene, 1860-1935.
  5. Katherine Greacean Nelson in Greene Museum Annual Report for 1954-55.
  6. The Kodak, Nov., 1911, p. 18.
  7. Kieckhefer, G. N. , The history of Milwaukee-Downer College 1851-1951. Centennial Publication of Milwaukee-Downer College Series 33, No. 2.
  8. Milwaukee-Downer Catalogue, April, 1913, p. 6.
  9. untitled, undated newspaper article (probably Nov. 1, 1913).
  10. Jupp, G. B. College: a reaffirmation. The heritage of Milwaukee-Downer Milwaukee History 1: 43-47.
  11. Nelson, K. G. “Charles Farrar and the Ladies’ Art and Science Class of Milwaukee.” Wisconsin Academy of Science, Arts and Letters Transactions 54, Pt. A: 119-123.
  12. Kieckhefer, G. N. 1950. The history of Milwaukee-Downer College 1851-1951. Centennial Publication of Milwaukee-Downer College Series 33, No. 2.
  13. Stevenson, Louise L.     The Victorian homefront: American thought and culture 1860-1880.Twayne Publishers, New York, 235 pp.
  14. Nelson, K.G. 1953. “One hundred years of earth science at Milwaukee-Downer College.” Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters Transactions 42: 143-147.
  15. Nelson, K. G. 1965. “Charles Farrar and the Ladies’ Art and Science Class of Milwaukee. Wisconsin Academy of Science, Arts and Letters Transactions 54, Pt. A: 119-123.
  16. Kieckhefer, G. N. 1950. The history of Milwaukee-Downer College 1851-1951. Centennial Publication of Milwaukee-Downer college Series 33, No. 2.