Building Community through Shared History - A KU Memorial Union Program

Natural Observer

At first glance it might seem odd that the initial student-run publication at the University of Kansas was focused more on nature than news. But look again. The Observer of Nature, which issued its premiere edition on April 1, 1874, had as its advisor none other than Francis Huntington Snow. He was one of KU’s three original faculty members, the sponsor of the school’s Natural History Society, and a future KU chancellor.

Snow was also near the cutting edge of the then-current debate – one, as it happens, that has never been entirely resolved – regarding the value and usefulness of a university education. With the launch of the Observer of Nature, Snow hoped to provide a venue for some practical training of the type students would not receive from a curriculum of purely classical studies.

“The name adopted for the organ of our Natural History Society, emphasizes the importance of cultivating the faculty of observation,” wrote Snow in the Observer’s premiere edition. Graduates of the American educational system, contended Snow, all too often found themselves woefully incapable of success because they had not been taught “the common things of life.” Although such young people could “accurately distinguish the niceties of the Greek accentuation” and had memorized arithmetic tables and grammatical rules, these “highly educated” individuals were “ignorant of the facts and principles which have become self-evident truths to common men.” They knew virtually nothing about horses, plants, farming, woodworking, seafaring, or business practices, noted Snow, and their “ears are deaf to the delicate harmonies in the notes of birds” and the “beautiful and curious flowers make no impression upon their slumbering visions.”

To drive home his point, Snow also quoted from a recent speech by Frederick Augustus Porter Barnard, president of Columbia College (present-day Columbia University) and one of the leading American educators of the nineteenth century. Snow cited Barnard’s amazement over “how little a young man may know when he has taken his university degrees, especially if he has stuck to his studies. He may really spend a long time looking for somebody more ignorant than himself.”

Snow also pointed out Barnard’s opinion that by neglecting practical studies and by failing adequately to develop their faculties of common sense and observation, recent graduates, “in society and in the work of life,” may find themselves “beaten by the youth whom at college they despised as frivolous or abhorred as profligate.” But all was not lost, especially here in the heartland. The University of Kansas, asserted Snow, “has made suitable provision for the development of observing faculty,” even though “many of our venerable Eastern colleges” have fallen miserably short. To properly address the epidemic of intelligent but unskilled students, Snow encouraged all educators not to rest until “ample provision” has been made “for the development of the faculty of observation” in every American school.

In the Observer’s first issue, student editor William Osborn echoed his mentor’s thoughts on the power of observation in describing the publication’s purpose and mission. “Nature, the handiwork of God, an inexhaustible reservoir of discovery, is our field of labor. Observation, which calls to its use the powers of the senses, is the instrument we wield. With Nature as its field, and Observation as its instrument, the now little Observer of Nature is launched upon the ocean of discovery.”

The new journal cost six cents per copy. It consisted primarily of short, scholarly essays from students and professors all relating in some way to the study of the natural sciences. The subject matter ran the gamut from astronomy to zoology, with countless other -ologies in between. Osborn wrote, however, that the Observer “claims in no way to be strictly scientific,” and “its contents will consist of original contributions, based, as far as possible, upon facts obtained by personal observation.”

The articles also seem to suggest that brown-nosing was alive and well a hundred years ago. In the Observer’s premiere issue, a certain A. Atchison wrote a piece on Aristotle titled “The First Naturalist.” Essentially a brief biographical account of Aristotle’s interest in the natural sciences, Atchison’s article sought to celebrate “the man, with whom observation, as the basis of science, had its beginning.” He reminded his fellow students that Aristotle was the “first systematic observer of nature” who traveled to Athens at the age of 17 to attend school, “just as some Missourians and Texicans come to Lawrence for that purpose.” In closing, Atchison noted that the Greek master was “lightly built, about the size of Prof. Snow, fastidious in his dress, a diligent worker, and died at the age of 63, of dyspepsia.”

Another article in the premiere Observer, perhaps reflecting Snow’s interest in entomology, was headlined “Insects and How to Dissect Them.” Written by NHS President G.F. Gaumer, this piece was not for the squeamish, for it gave precise instructions on the best methods for killing and mounting insects. “The common and probably the easiest way” advised Gaumer “… is to compress the thorax between the thumb and forefinger until life is extinguished.” One could also drop a little potassium cyanide into a glass jar containing the luckless bug and wait for the poison to take effect. In any event, a “common cigar box” and a “good supply of pins” were essential ingredients for the insect connoisseur desiring to display his prized collection. Other submissions included some observations on Baltimore Orioles (the birds, not the baseball team), the recounting of a trip to southern Kansas where the author discovered a variety of “very poisonous” creatures and “learned something of their habits,” and a whimsical tale about turtles.

These quasi-scientific articles notwithstanding, the Observer of Nature did not entirely ignore news of the announcement variety. Under the heading “University Matters,” the first issue also contained brief reports on the activities of the Oread Society and the Orophilian Society (two student literary groups), the new boys’ baseball club, the establishment of lounge rooms for each class, and an item detailing how a “wily clown” pulled the chair out from under the president of an un-named class as he was in the act of sitting down. Subsequent issues contained news briefs of a similar nature.

The Observer of Nature continued appearing more or less monthly until March 1875, when it merged with a new literary journal called the Kansas Collegiate, published by the Oread Society. The two began appearing jointly and subscribers received what was essentially a two-for-one deal, as both retained their respective specialties. Yet neither paper lasted long. The Observer ceased publication in the spring of 1876 and the Collegiate followed two years later.

John H. McCool
Department of History
University of Kansas

[Source Notes: The first issue is Observer of Nature, April 1, 1874. This and all editions of the Observer are held in University Archives, 4th Floor, Spencer Research Library. See also, University Daily Kansan, January 20, 1916, p. 2, a special edition celebrating the four-year anniversary of the UDK. It contains a brief history of student publications at KU, among which was the Observer of Nature. The above-mentioned Prof. Francis H. Snow wrote two books on similar subjects that may be of interest: Catalogue of Plants Seen in Kansas, (Lawrence, Kan.: University of Kansas Press, 187-?), located in Spencer Library (Kansas Collection); and A Catalogue of the Birds of Kansas, (Lawrence, Kan.: University of Kansas Press, 1903), located in Anschutz Library. Also see Clyde Kenneth Hyder, Snow of Kansas, (Lawrence, Kan.: University of Kansas, 1953).]