Founded in 1874, the San Diego Society of Natural History is the oldest scientific institution in southern California, and the third oldest west of the Mississippi. We’ve grown from a small society of natural history lovers and collectors to a big museum with 8 million specimens, spectacular programs, and award-winning exhibitions. It’s difficult to summarize a century and a half of work, but here are just a few milestones in our organizational history that demonstrate how we have studied, protected, and brought people closer to nature for nearly 150 years.
The year: 1874, just 15 years after Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species and two years before the invention of the telephone. The place: San Diego, a town of 3,000 residents, incorporated as a city only 24 years earlier. A group of amateur naturalists came together to form the San Diego Society of Natural History. Their goal? To be a primary source of scientific culture: find new species, discuss technical innovations, serve a small but growing community eager for information, and make real contributions to the study of this region. Nearly 150 years later, we still gather every day to do just that.
In 1875, just one year after its founding, the Society nominated a group of women to be associate members who would become prominent naturalists. The most notable of these were Rosa Smith Eigenmann (above), who is considered to be one of the first professional female ichthyologists (someone who studies fish), and Kate Sessions, well known for her contributions to the planting of Balboa Park beginning in 1892. Learn more about the influential women of the Society.
Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve is a must-see destination in San Diego. But how did it come to be? Knowing the Torrey pine was special and worth saving, Society members worked for years to protect it from destruction. Beginning in 1883, they encouraged the City and County to pass laws to conserve the species, and drafted petitions asking Congress donate the lands to the Society for protection. This project continued to be an important concern of the Society through the mid-1920s, when the Torrey Pines Reserve was finally established.
The summer of 1912 marked a major milestone: the Society opened its first museum (a single room). After many years of seeking a home to house its collection, hold its meetings, and eventually display items to the public, the Society met for the first time in the newly constructed Hotel Cecil on Sixth Avenue in downtown San Diego. That same month, exhibits created by Frank and Kate Stephens were installed in a single room and adjoining alcove, and were open to the public several afternoons each week. A museum was born.
The organization occupied three buildings in the Park before moving to our current home—you could say we’re park hoppers. In 1917, the Society purchased the Nevada Building (where the San Diego Zoo now sits), left vacant after the 1915 Panama-California Exposition. In 1920, the Society moved to the Foreign Arts Building, now called the House of Hospitality. Finally, in 1922 the Museum moved into the spacious Canadian Building, which was later rebuilt as the Casa de Balboa (currently housing MOPA, the San Diego History Center, and Model Railroad Museum).
During this time, reaching students and schoolchildren became a major focus. The Society hired its first Director of Education who launched the Nature Cabinet program in September 1920. This involved creating nature-study kits under themes of Geology, Animals, Birds, and Insects, and delivering them to rural schools in a 1920 Ford truck. That same month, the first museum-sponsored nature walk was introduced—a bird-watching walk through Balboa Park. Versions of both outreach programs continue to this day in the form of our Nature to You Loan Library and nature walks offered by the Canyoneer naturalists.
The Museum has a long history of expeditions throughout the Baja California Peninsula—beginning in the late 1800s. One of the higher profile expeditions took place in in 1922 in collaboration with the National Geographic Society, the Scripps Institution of Biological Research, and the California Academy of Sciences. This trip to Guadalupe Island with a prestigious group of scientists added great credibility to the Museum as an important research institution. Our expeditions continue to this day, and have resulted in many important scientific discoveries.
The Society played a critical role in the development of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. In 1928, Director Clinton Abbot and local naturalist Guy Fleming submitted plans for a park in the Borrego desert area. When San Diego voters rejected a bond to match state funds, Society member George Marston purchased 2,320 acres near Palm Canyon, deeded them to the State, and encouraged other landowners to do the same. With the backing of Marston, the Society, and the state park commission, the U.S. government transferred 200,000 acres of federal land to Anza Borrego State Park in 1933, giving us the park we know and love today.
The organization continued to grow and need more room. Local philanthropist and longtime supporter Ellen Browning Scripps gifted the Society $125,000 to build our new (and permanent) home. It was constructed on Balboa Park’s East Prado and dedicated on January 14, 1933. San Diego's leading architect, William Templeton Johnson, designed the building as a complete rectangle, but money was tight in the Depression years. Thus, only the south and west wings could be erected—resulting in an L-shaped building. The north and east exterior facades were left plain as temporary walls slated for future expansion, and remained so for 60 years.
In spring 1943 during WWII, the U.S. Navy took over several buildings in Balboa Park. Ours served as a hospital and infectious diseases ward. The Navy added an elevator to handle hospital gurneys and a nurses’ station between floors—both features remain in use today. The library was moved to San Diego State College and exhibits were transferred to more than 30 off-site locations; those too large to be moved were stuffed into the north wing on the main floor. When staff were able to reoccupy the building, they were forced to reassess collections and exhibits, at which point the Board adopted a policy to restrict collections to the southwestern United States and northern Mexico.
Museum Research Associate and Biologist Dr. Ray Gilmore is considered the father of modern-day whale watching. Beginning in the 1950s, Gilmore documented shrinking numbers of gray whales. Recognizing that these majestic creatures needed help, he began raising awareness by taking people out on boats to watch whales. Many people returned inspired: they refused to support commercial whaling, stopped buying whale-based products, and pressed for protective laws. Gray whales made a comeback, and in 1994 were removed from the federal endangered species list.
In 1960, the Museum tackled its most ambitious scientific project to date: establishing the Vermillion Sea Station at Bahía de Los Angeles on the gulf side of the Baja California Peninsula. One of the few field research facilities on the shores of the subtropical eastern Pacific, many scientists studying this region used the station, producing numerous publications. The facility was funded for three years with support from the National Science Foundation, allowing the Museum to keep pace in the investigation of habitats on the Baja California gulf coast.
Decades-long use of the pesticide DDT affected animals up and down the marine food chain. One such species was the brown pelican, whose eggshells began to thin—making them so weak that they crumbled under a parent’s weight. In the 1960s, scientists used eggs from our research collection to establish a direct correlation between shell thinning and the presence of DDT in the environment. DDT was banned in 1972. The brown pelican species eventually recovered and was removed from the federal endangered species in 2009. This is just one example of a practical application of museum collections.
Since its inception, the Society had organized nature walks throughout the region. This activity was formalized as a museum program in 1973 when Associate Botanist Helen Chamlee organized a new naturalist-guide program, the Canyoneers. They offered guided nature walks through unplanted hillsides—focused initially on Florida Canyon. Chamlee was instrumental in establishing a part of Florida Canyon as a native plant preserve, spending hours at hearings and Council meetings testifying to the value of maintaining part of Balboa Park in their natural state.
In 1992, the Board adopted a new strategic plan, which established the Biodiversity Research Center of the Californias (BRCC) to refocus research and collections on regional biology and geology, and the Environmental Science Education Center (ESEC) to offer educational programs on-site, off-site, and in binational settings. The related capital campaign also led to a major building expansion. The facility’s size more than doubled with a 90,000-square-foot addition, which opened in April 2001. These two new wings—on the east and north—brought to fruition the building that was envisioned in 1933.
For more information about the history of the Museum, see Inspired by Nature: The San Diego Natural History Museum after 125 Years, by Iris Engstrand and Anne Bullard (San Diego, Calif.: San Diego Natural History Museum, 1999).
The Research Library's archives contain institutional records and special collections of naturalists, events, scientific expeditions, and research activities of the Museum.