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Robert Kennicott
Nature Bulletin No. 395-A   November 14, 1970
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

ROBERT KENNICOTT
Snooty easterners prone to sneer at Chicago as being a crude boisterous city of gangsters, stockyards, windy weather and windy people, ignore the fact that it is one o the world's great centers of learning, science and culture. Chicagoans are proud of their magnificent museums but few know that two of them, the Academy of Sciences and the Museum of Natural History, have their roots in the ideals and achievements of a remarkable naturalist who died in 1866 when less than 31 years of age: Robert Kennicott.

Soon after he was born in New Orleans on November 13, 1835, his parents came north and settle here in "The Grove", on Milwaukee Ave., in Northfield Township. He was a frail boy who had little formal schooling but received much instruction from his father, Dr. John A. Kennicott, a learned physician passionately devoted to horticulture. He was encouraged to roam about, recording and studying the plants and animals he found.

At 17 he was sent to study under Dr. Jared Potter Kirtland in Cleveland. Kirtland another physician and horticulturist, now famous in the history of natural science, introduced Robert to several outstanding men who became interested in him -- notably, Spencer Fullerton Baird, really the founder of the National Museum, then planning zoological explorations of the entire American continent by naturalists under the auspices of the Smithsonian Institution. As a result, the rest of young Kennicott's brief life was spent in exploration, collecting specimens, preserving and cataloging them for various museums .

He quickly established a reputation for clear descriptions and accuracy. He presented a wealth of new facts about the habits and economic importance of the smaller mammals. He also pointed out the differences between eastern and western forms of animals and wrote: "I wish to show these gentlemen that if two-legged animals in the West follow Eastern fashion, four-legged ones don't !.

In 1855, he collected specimens in southern Illinois for the State Natural History Survey. He helped found the Chicago Academy of Sciences in 1856, later becoming its Director. He made the original collections for a museum at Northwestern University. In 1859, he started from Ft. William, on the shore of Lake Superior, to explore Arctic North America. More than three years were spent in the Mackenzie and Yukon River Basins, collecting geological specimens, fishes, mammals, birds, and all kinds of insects for the Smithsonian Institution. His fascinating journal of that trip is priceless.

In 1865, he was selected as one of the leaders of an expedition to explore an overland route to Europe via Alaska -- then Russian Territory -- and Siberia: also to make collections for the Smithsonian and the Chicago academy. They finally arrived at Norton Sound and portaged to the Yukon River where on May 12, 1866, Kennicott overexerted himself in saving a Russian member of the party from drowning. The next morning they found him on the river bank, dead, with his compass set in the ground and, drawn in the mud, a map of the surrounding peaks.

He was a great and lovable person.


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