Visionary science of the “Harvard Barbarians”

Cover of ChebaccoThe Mount Desert Island Historical Society asked me to write an article about The Champlain Society for the 2014 issue of Chebacco, their annual publication. The theme was “Against the Tide: Outliers and Controversies.”

At first, the members of the Champlain Society wouldn’t appear to be outliers. I wasn’t sure the story would work for the journal. As white males from the Northeast, as Harvard students, they were among the entitled and the powerful. As David McCullough wrote in Mornings on Horseback, his biography of Theodore Roosevelt (whose time at Harvard overlapped with the Champlain Society), “Judged by the color of their skin, the churches they attended, the number of syllables in their names, by almost any such criteria, they were as homogenous an assembly of young men—and as unrepresentative of turbulent, polyglot, post-Civil War America—as one could imagine.”

But as I thought about whether and how the story fit the theme, it seemed that the Champlain Society members stood apart—from other Mount Desert Island tourists, other students, and other scientists—for several reasons. First, they were unique among Mount Desert Island tourists for their scientific view of the landscape and the way they experienced it, by camping. Second, they were unique among students for conducting science on their own, in the field, during summer vacation and the school year. Third, they were unique among scientists of the era for their intensive focus on the flora and fauna of a single place. Finally, all of these unique aspects combined in the Champlain Society’s enduring influence on the Mount Desert Island of today.

The article goes into detail about each of these unique aspects, including the history of camping on Mount Desert Island, the travel habits of nineteenth-century students, and the practice of science at the time.


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