March 15, 2012
Long before he considered a career in politics, Theodore Roosevelt thought he would be a naturalist. From an early age, Roosevelt had a fascination with the natural world. His father, one of the original founders of New York City’s famous Natural History Museum, encouraged his son’s curiosity, perhaps seeing the interest as leading to activities to help Roosevelt overcome his asthma. It was on a summer trip to the country that five year old Teedie began to hunt for plants and animals to study. At the venerable age of seven years old, Roosevelt began his career as zoologist. As he recalled later, this career started when he was walking up Broadway and saw a dead seal which raised questions in the young boy’s mind: Where had it been caught, how long was it, what species of seal was it? He managed to acquire the seal’s skull, the first specimen in what he called the “Roosevelt Museum of Natural History.”
It was around this time that Roosevelt also started to write natural history essays. These essays are the first examples of serious scientific scholarship on the part of Roosevelt. With all the precociousness of a nine year old, Roosevelt wrote his first long-form essay, “Natural History of Insects.” Dotted with spelling mistakes, this essay shows the observation and memory for details that would be hallmarks of Roosevelt as a politician later in life.
However, the area of zoology which interested Roosevelt the most was ornithology. The family’s trip down the Nile in 1872 provided the fourteen year old Roosevelt with a unique opportunity. He approached the trip as an official scientific expedition for the collection of specimens for the Roosevelt Museum of Natural History. After lessons on the family’s dahabeah with his sister, Roosevelt would prowl the shores of the Nile, observing and hunting its fowl. Often, he ventured further inland from the shore and the result was an essay, “Ornithology of Egypt between Cairo and Assuan.” Roosevelt begins his essay by describing the unique ecosystem of the Nile and then launches into a detailed look at the nine “true desert birds.” He pays particular attention to coloration and daily behaviors of each species of bird and tries to compare the birds both to what he has read about them and to other birds he knows. For example,
The sand grouse is a very curious bird, in external appearance much resembling a pigeon. It makes at irregular periods extensive migrations; and has the reputation of being extremely wary – but I did not find it so.
Roosevelt would continue his natural history “hobby” throughout his life, writing articles and participating in debates even during his presidency. His two best known expeditions, Africa and South America, were both sponsored scientific expeditions that collected valuable natural history data for some of the world’s most prominent museums. It is fascinating to look back on these early essays to see where his passion for natural history and exploration began.
Edmund Morris, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt. 1979.