Hermon Carey Bumpus (1862-1943), professor of comparative anatomy at Brown and later Director of the American Museum of Natural History and President of Tufts College, was born in Buckfield, Maine, on May 5, 1862. In 1866 the family moved to Massachusetts, and Bumpus attended a number of different schools as they moved around in the vicinity of Boston. As a child his interest in natural history had already taken root. A high school friend was the son of Marshall P. Wilder, president of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society. At the Wilders’ estate Hermon added interest in horticulture and the use of Mr. Wilder’s private library to his already flourishing hobbies of hunting birds and collecting insects and snakes. At Dorchester High School he began to think of going to college to become a naturalist, but his principal, considering his educational achievement up to that time, recommended that he work in a grocery store. The principal’s daughter, however, took an interest in Hermon and tutored him in languages, so that he was able to enter Brown in 1879, probably assisted in his admission by Deacon Joseph C. Hartshorn, his father’s friend, who was also a member of the Brown Corporation.
In search of funds to continue his education, Bumpus was able to make use of his early hobbies of sketching animals and mounting specimens and became an assistant in the museum. There he helped Professor John Whipple Potter Jenks in preparing specimens and in the revision and illustration of Jenks’s scientific writings. In his senior year he wrote the chapter on “Reptiles of the World” for the encyclopedia, Standard Natural History. He spent the summer after his graduation in 1884 in Annisquam on Cape Ann, Massachusetts, studying at Alpheus Hyatt’s new biological laboratory there. He returned to Brown in the fall to assist Professor Packard, and to take a postgraduate course in zoology, the funds for his salary having been subscribed by Packard, Rowland Hazard, and Professor J. W. P. Jenks. The following year he was asked to take over the classes of Professor Packard, who was on leave. In 1886 Olivet College in Michigan established a department of biology and Bumpus was offered the professorship. He left in 1889. A year earlier, Clark University had been founded in Worcester, Massachusetts, and Bumpus was anxious to study with the notable group of scholars in biology which had been assembled there. Accordingly, he left Olivet and brought his wife and child back east to live on a $600 stipend while he earned his Ph.D. degree. With two years of previous graduate study at Brown and a notable thesis on the American lobster, he became the recipient of the first Ph.D. degree from Clark University.
Bumpus had also become involved with the Marine Biological Laboratory which had been opened at Woods Hole, Massachusetts in 1888 as a graduate institution where biologists could continue their research work during the summer. In 1889 Bumpus started a summer training school there for students interested in becoming biologists. He was made assistant director of the laboratory. In 1890 Bumpus came back to Brown, this time as assistant professor of zoology. In 1892 he was named professor of comparative anatomy. President Andrews had commissioned him to introduce graduate study and research into the Biology Department. He brought with him from Woods Hole his first graduate student, Albert Davis Mead, who would later succeed him in his position and become vice-president of the University. Another one of his early students was Herbert Eugene Walter, who was also to become a professor of biology at Brown. Excerpts from Walter’s diary reveal some of Bumpus’s unorthodox, but very effective, teaching methods:
Sept. 29, 1892. Last night at 8 o’clock Dr. Bumpus came in our room with the fresh head of a big tortoise which we tackled for skull and brain until 11 P.M., when he returned and said, “Come on, boys, let’s go and have some ice cream. You have worked long enough.” An unusual college professor, I do confess. He even suggested that we have a smoke if we cared to. He surely is a jewel treating us as his equals. Tomorrow we will finish up the tortoise head. We got out the brain in toto, with long enough cranial nerve stubs to show in good shape, and now it’s hardening in bichromate. ...Students who planned to pursue a medical career were given special courses and were also introduced to and associated with practicing physicians. Bumpus began to feel that the students could learn from a human dissection and broached this subject to President Andrews, whose ambiguous reply, “I don’t want to know anything about it,” meant to Bumpus that he should go ahead. He acquired an unclaimed body from the medical examiner and began his class in human anatomy. Very soon (fortunately it was soon) after that he recognized his cadaver as a missing person whose photograph was in the newspaper and promptly returned the body to the city morgue, that it might be discovered there.
April 24, 1893. Bumpus has one jolly custom with his class in invertebrates. They are now working on the lobster and of course use fresh material. After class we go down to the furnace room and roast the claws in the ashes. They are fine that way, with the Professor as toastmaster.
While he taught at Brown, he also continued his work at Woods Hole as assistant director of the Marine Biological Laboratory from 1893 to 1895 and director of the Biological Laboratory of the U.S. Fish Commission. One of his contributions to the fishing industry was a method which he and Albert Mead devised of keeping young lobsters alive, preventing them from devouring each other, and releasing them when they reached a stage of development at which they could escape being eaten by other fishes.
Bumpus was never at a loss for ways to attract support for his projects. He inaugurated the Biological Club, an informal organization of local physicians and other interested persons. He was appointed to the board of trustees of Rhode Island Hospital and solicited from Mrs. Gustave Radeke funds to establish a much-needed laboratory of pathology at the hospital. When he was elected president of the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, he launched a campaign for protective legislation for wild birds. Bumpus was a pioneer in the new technique of biometry, the application of statistics to biological data. He used it in examining Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Coming up College Hill after a severe storm in February 1898 he found 136 disabled sparrows on the ground, and learned that those which survived did so because of superior physical characteristics. He demonstrated his new X-ray machine, which also played a part in the first use of X-rays in connection with surgery in Rhode Island, when he took it to Rhode Island Hospital and located a needle in a patient’s foot.
Having launched Brown’s Biology Department on a program of undergraduate teaching in conjunction with research, he began the next phase of his career in 1900 with the American Museum of Natural History as assistant to Morris K. Jesup, president of the board of the museum, who promoted him after a year to the position of the first director of the Museum. He felt that the museum belonged to the public, and under his administration exhibits and programs for school children attracted great numbers. But, after the death of Mr. Jesup, a new organization brought about the lessening of his authority and he found a new field in college administration. The experience in budgets and dealing with state government which he had acquired at the museum fitted him for his next occupations, business manager of the University of Wisconsin from 1911 to 1914 and president of Tufts College from 1915 to 1919. At Tufts as at Brown, he decided to leave when he had accomplished what he set out to do. His first year at Tufts ended with an increase in enrollment of 25 per cent, the bills paid, and no deficit. He saw Tufts through the war and then resigned to pursue his personal interests. Among these interests was the buildings and remodeling of houses, some of them rather odd. He had a Philippine bungalow on Long Island Sound made from the lumber of the Philippine Hall at the St. Louis Exposition, which he purchased when the fair buildings were auctioned off. He had an Italian villa in a Boston suburb and an old Cape Cod house in Duxbury, Massachusetts. As chairman of the Committee on Outdoor Education of the American Association of Museums, Bumpus devoted his attention to the development of “trailside museums,” a term he coined, in parks and other areas controlled by the National Park Service.
His devotion to Brown lasted all his life. He was elected to the Board of Fellows in 1905, and was Secretary of the Corporation from 1924 to 1937. During his retirement Bumpus happened to meet President Faunce on a train, and immediately became involved in a campaign to raise three million dollars in endowment. His creation of “Brown Bear Bonds,” engraved bonds carrying the picture of a bear and certifying one’s contribution, gave impetus to the campaign which was oversubscribed by three quarters of a million. When his weakening heart made it impossible for him to attend meetings of the Corporation, he regretfully wrote to President Wriston on May 22, 1943, presenting his resignation because “I feel that it is selfish for one to retain a nominal position of implied responsibility – may I say honor – and fail to discharge the incident obligations.” He died in Pasadena on June 21, 1943. His old friend Albert Davis Mead summarized his life:
Dr. Bumpus thoroughly enjoyed his stay on this planet, which he found so full of a number of things. He enjoyed pointing out these things in a new light to the men, women, and children, high and low, who were here in his time, and he did not neglect the interests of those yet to arrive.”