Henry Augustus Ward: Adventurer and Collector

One of the great things about this job is how often interesting tidbits of information unexpectedly crop up during routine work with the collections.  In library circles this phenomenon is known as serendipitous discovery and usually refers to how books on a subject or related subjects are shelved together or nearby each other.  This allows the searcher that finds one book on their topic to “serendipitously” find additional useful resources.  “I didn’t know I needed it until I found it,” is the usual comment.  In similar fashion, during reference work I often find fascinating information only tangentially related to that I was originally seeking.  This occurred most recently last month, when a question about our Facebook post for National Horse Day led me to discover the colorful character, Henry Augustus Ward.

The Facebook post was about a fossilized prehistoric horse tooth in the collection and a reader asked how the NSLM had acquired it.  Unfortunately the Library doesn’t have any record of who donated the tooth and the only documentation accompanying it is a specimen tag stating it was Eohippus species, dated from the Eocene, and was found in the Willwood Formation in Worland, Wyoming.  The bottom edge of the tag listed the supplier as Ward’s Natural Science Establishment, Inc. in Rochester NY.  On a whim I checked to see if the company was still in existence.  It is, and today they specialize in supplying classroom materials for science education.  Ward’s Science, as it is called today, was founded in 1862 by Henry Augustus Ward — a man whose life of adventure and travel sounds more like fiction than fact.

Henry Augustus Ward. From Wikimedia Commons.

Ward was born in Rochester, New York in 1834.  At the age of twelve he ran away from home and made his way on foot and by lake steamer to visit his father who was working in Chicago.  It was the first of many adventurous trips.  He was interested in geology and attended several universities, including Harvard where he studied under Louis Agassiz.  At twenty he landed a job as a tutor for his friend Charles Wadsworth.  They attended Mines School in Paris.  The two of them traveled throughout Europe but eventually Wadsworth’s poor health sent them south to warmer climes.  They journeyed to Egypt where they ascended the Nile 1000 miles and then traveled overland from Alexandria to Jerusalem, including a stop to climb Mt. Siani.  Ward stayed on in Europe after the tutoring job ended and began financing his education through the buying and selling of specimens.  It is during this time that he hits on making a career out of building specimen collections for museums and universities. 

On his way back to Rochester from this first European trip, Henry ended up contracting a fever (or small pox depending on the source) and was marooned somewhere along the western coast of Africa by the ship captain for fear of contagion among the crew and other passengers.  He was cared for by the locals and eventually made it back to Rochester, where at 26 he married and was appointed a professor at the University of Rochester.  He reportedly brought home upwards of 40,000 specimens from Europe and his obsession with collecting continued to grow. 

Catalogue of mammals, birds, reptiles, and fishes (1877). From the special collections at University of Rochester, River Campus Libraries

Within two years he founded the Ward’s Natural Science Establishment and began to sell not only geologic collections, such as fossils and minerals, but also natural history collections featuring skeletons and taxidermy mounts.  Ward’s would prove essential to the foundation of many American museums, allowing their core collections to be assembled quickly.  The company was also instrumental in the development of the science of museum taxidermy.  Many of the taxidermists that would eventually serve in America’s finest natural history museums had their start working for Ward’s.

After five years Ward abandoned the teaching profession and continued his life of adventure.  He dabbled in gold mining for a time both in the American West and in the Carolinas.  He became friends with Buffalo Bill Cody and P.T. Barnum, mounting buffalo heads for the former and no less than Jumbo the Elephant for the latter. 

P.T. Barnum’s Jumbo. From Ward’s Science.

He continued to travel to all parts of the world in search of specimens.  In later life he was especially interested in meteorites and amassed an impressive collection of them.  Even in death Ward was singular.  In 1904 on the 4th of July he was hit and killed by a car in Buffalo, NY.  His was the first pedestrian fatality caused by an automobile in that city.  It was a hit and run, although the driver was found and charged with manslaughter. The Buffalo Commercial ran a lengthy article about the accident that may be read here.

Henry Ward with a meteorite. From Wikimedia Commons.

Although Henry Ward wasn’t stuffed and mounted like his specimens, his brain was given to the Wilder Brain Collection at Cornell University, for research on the “physical characteristics of a brilliant mind.”  Ward’s ashes are interred in Mount Hope Cemetery in Rochester NY.  His grave is marked by a large jasper-flecked boulder that he brought back from Canada for the purpose. 

Ward’s grave in Mount Hope Cemetery. From Linda Hall Library.

It goes without saying that there is quite a bit more to learn about Henry August Ward than what I included in this short article.  I’d like to share my favorite description of him as well as some sources for further reading.

William T. Hornaday described Ward like this:

“His height is five feet eight, and at present his weight is 172 pounds.  If one could examine him analytically it would be found that internally he is composed of raw-hide, whale-bone and asbestos; for surely no ordinary human materials could for forty-five years so successfully withstand bad cooks, bad food and bad drinks that have necessarily been encountered by anyone who has, so recklessly of self, traveled all over creation.”— W. T. Hornaday, Biographic Memoirs of Deceased Fellows, Proceedings of the Rochester Academy of Science Vol. 5, pp. 241-251, May 1919. 

Resources for further investigation :


Erica Libhart has served as the Mars Technical Services Librarian at the National Sporting Library & Museum (NSLM) since early 2016. The focus of her position is collection services, working to increase accessibility to NSLM’s collection of books, periodicals, and archival materials. The NSLM collections span over 350 years of the history of equestrian sport, as well as fly fishing, wing shooting, and other field sports. Have a question? Contact Erica by e-mail.

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