Famous collection of human hair is talk topic

MOUNT DESERT — Robert Peck will discuss his book “Specimens of Hair: The Curious Collection of Peter A. Browne” Wednesday, July 17, at 5:30 p.m. at the Northeast Harbor Public Library.

“No matter who we are, old or young, fashion conscious or style indifferent, we are all aware of hair,” event organizers said. “We wash it; we comb it; we cut, curl, and dye it. Hair can be envied or derided, and hair can provide clues to everything from age to culture to genetic identity to health.”

To amateur naturalist named Peter A. Browne, who lived from 1782 to 1860, hair was of paramount importance: he believed it was the single physical attribute that could unravel the mystery of human evolution.

“Specimens of Hair” presents a broad selection from the twelve-volume archive of mammalian diversity Browne created during many years of diligent, obsessive work.

Thirty years before Charles Darwin revolutionized under-standing of the descent of man, Browne began vigorously collecting for study the widest possible variety of what he called the “pile” (from the Latin word for hair, pilus) in his quest to account for the differences and similarities between groups of humans and animals.

By the time of his death in 1860, Browne had assembled samples from innumerable wild and domestic animals, and the largest known study collection of human hair.

He obtained hair from people from all parts of the globe and all walks of life: artists, scientists, abolitionist ministers, doctors, writers, politicians, financiers, military leaders, and even prisoners, sideshow performers and lunatics.

His crowning achievement was a gathering of hair from 13 of the first 14 U.S. Presidents.

Browne bequeathed his albums to the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. They have been preserved in the archives there, though they narrowly escaped destruction in the 1970s. They are a manifestation of the collecting instincts of a well-intentioned man trying to explain the mysteries of the natural world.

Peck is a naturalist, writer and historian with a special interest in the intersection of science, history and art.

As Senior Fellow of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, now part of Drexel University, he has chronicled scientific research expeditions around the world. Among Peck’s most recent books are “The Natural History of Edward Lear” and “A Glorious Enterprise: The Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia,” co-authored with Patricia T. Stroud.

The talk is free and open to the public. Contact 276-3333.


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