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Michigan Loses Beloved 'Elder Scientist'

Joseph Beale Steere
The Michigan Alumnus 233

DR. JOSEPH B. STEERE, '68, LL.B.'70, Ph.D. (hon.)' 75

Member of Faculty from 1876 to 1894 died in Ann Arbor at age of 98 on December 7, 1940. 


Director of the Museum
 of Zoology

The following letter is presented 
because in it the writer reveals
 unconsciously so many of the at
tributes that guided his life and made 
him the friend, teacher and colleague
 of so many persons over the world.

Home,—November 24th, 1940

My dear Gaige,

You may begin to think that I do
 not appreciate that box of Philippine
s hells that you and Goodrich sorted
 out and cleaned and labeled and boxed 
and sent me. I have enjoyed looking 
them over and thinking of my experi
ences in collecting them. Their old
 owners could neither fly nor swim, 
only crawl—and the Philippine Islands
 are volcanic and have been going up 
and down in the sea for ages and the 
land and tree shells have suffered more 
than most forms from the changes.
 The Island of Mindoro is the only one 
that kept its surface above water to
 support a continental mammal—the
 little water buffalo, and I would think 
that its shells would show something
 of this ancient origin. But I never
 had the time nor opportunity to see—
perhaps the collection of shells from
 Mindoro in your hands is not sufficient
 for such a study.

You have probably noticed that 
many of the tree shells lost their su
perficial markings that wet through
 with the rains so that they changed 
to the dull color of the wet bark they 
rested on. This is very apparent on 
first collecting the shells. Perhaps fur
ther and more careful collecting will
 show more of the history of their origin 
and distribution. I hope some of the
 U. of M. students will carry out these 

Excuse this scrawl—at 98 my mus
cles are stiff.


P.S. I wish that you and Goodrich
 could come and see me and we could 
talk it out."

This letter, and it was no scrawl as
 its author so disparagingly comments,
 must have been one of the last of 
thousands written over a long, busy 
and eventful life, for Dr. Steere died 
on December 7, 1940, at the age of 
ninety-eight years and ten months. In 
his death, the University has lost one
 of its most loyal, distinguished and
 oldest alumni and Faculty members—
he had graduated from the Classical
 School (now the Literary College) in
 1868, received his LL.B. from the law
 school in 1870, Honorary Ph.D. In 
1875, and was from 1876 to 1893 not
 only Curator in the Museum but successively Assistant Professor of Paleontology, Assistant Professor of Paleon
tology and Zoology, and Professor of Zoology. His explorations, begun in
 1870 with a five-year expedition up 
the valley of the Amazon, across the
 Andes and then over the Far East, the 
Philippines, China, the Moluccas, For
mosa, and many another place so re
mote in that day, and followed by
 other long explorations through the
 busy years, brought in many thousands
 of specimens to the University and 
laid the foundations for the great 
world collections in its museums to
day. In 1879, he saw the construction
 of the University's museum building
 now devoted to Romance Languages,
 the first museum building to be erected 
and maintained by a state university, 
and as Curator, his organization and 
studies made it recognized the world 
over as a scientific institution. His
 colleagues and correspondents were the
 other great naturalists of the time, Al
fred Russell Wallace, Edward Drinker 
Cope, Spencer Fullerton Baird, Philip 
Lutley Sclater, Albert Gunther, Rich
ard Bowdler Sharpe and the Marquis 
of Tweeddale, to name a few with
 whom he visited and whose letters are 
in the files today. As Dr. Steere was 
one of the great pioneering naturalists
 of his time, so he was one of the first
 members of the University's Faculty 
to see in the institution its need for a world-wide scope and interest, a cos
mopolitan point of view we accept to
day without question largely because 
of his, and a few of his colleagues',
 vision and labors. To those who may
be interested in a more detailed ac-
count of Dr. Steere's extraordinary ac
tivities, on the occasion of his ninetieth 
birthday there was published in the
 MICHIGAN ALUMNUS (Vol. 38, No. 18, 
pp. 345, 346, 352, 353) a story of his
 work, and bibliography of his writings 
is recorded in the Annual Report of 
the Museum of Zoology for 1918-19.

To those of us in the Museum of Zoology who have known Dr. Steere
 for many years or all our lives, his 
absence is still unreal. We have known
 him as a wise and gentle friend, who 
had never lost touch with or interest 
in the institution to which he had given
 so much, as a distinguished colleague
 who had laid firm foundations for our
 work, and had contributed so liber
ally to his fields of interest. The long 
talks with him, in his big cheerful room 
at home, with the old books, maps and
 atlases at hand, his keen memory re
calling incidents and observations over 
his long life, always touched with his
 gentle humor and Quaker tolerance,
 these were hours we saw through eyes 
better than our own. And always the 
friendly eager welcome, always the en
thusiasm not only for things past but 
for the needs of future investigations
 and understandings, new horizons to 
be explored and new knowledge to be
 acquired and used. Sometimes we went 
alone to visit him, sometimes with an
 old student of his—so many came back 
from all over the world, with their fine 
memories of his teaching—sometimes
 with a visiting scientist wishing to re
new or make acquaintance with our 
great friend as the years hurried by.

Until the last very few years we looked 
forward to his visits to the museum,
 to the museum he had made, and enjoyed his pleasure in seeing its growth 
and activities—in the new acquisitions
 and in the old ones he himself had
 added. They were gay occasions for 
the staff, and when he was no longer
 quite able to come we missed him and 
his encouraging enthusiasm.

But as long as there is an interest
 in science, Joseph Beal Steere will be 
remembered as Michigan's great pio
neer naturalist, explorer and teacher
 who gave his best to the world without
 reservation or thought of self.