“That’s what I love about reading: one tiny thing will interest you in a book, and that tiny thing will lead you onto another book, and another bit there will lead you on to a third book,” says Juliet Ashton, the heroine of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. “It’s geometrically progressive — all with no end in sight, and for no other reason than sheer enjoyment.”
When Annie Barrows and Mary Ann Shaffer wrote these words, they could also have been describing what happens whenever I meander through catalog records and finding aids. Curiosity about one thing I find lures me down an even more interesting path.
Recently, a note in an Ohio Historical Society catalog record put me on the trail of today’s subject: John Maynard Wheaton.
Born in Columbus in 1840, Wheaton was known to his boyhood friends as “Bucky.” He graduated from Denison University in 1860 and went on to study at Starling Medical College. During the Civil War, he served as an assistant surgeon in the 188th Ohio Volunteer Infantry. He returned to Starling as a professor of anatomy from 1867 until his death from tuberculosis in 1887.
Wheaton married Lida Daniels in 1876; they had one son, Robert. He lived his whole life in the same house, on the northeast corner of Fourth and Oak Streets in downtown Columbus. I am sorry to report that the site of Wheaton’s home is a parking lot now.
Wheaton’s profession was medicine, but his avocation was nature. In his free time, he roamed the outdoors, observing and collecting birds, butterflies, insects and snakes. That pursuit led him to become an ornithologist for the Ohio Geological Survey from 1872 to 1882. He also authored some notable publications about birds.
His Catalogue of the Birds of Ohio was published as part of the Ohio Agricultural Report for 1860. Wheaton listed 271 birds that he had observed, focusing on new species that had been discovered since Jared Kirtland, zoologist and botanist for the State of Ohio, prepared his 1838 catalogue of Ohio birds.
The Food of Birds as Related to Agriculture, which Wheaton wrote for the Ohio Agricultural Report in 1875, provided agriculturists, ornithologists and legislators with a list of birds found in Ohio. It outlined whether the birds were residents or migrants, their abundance, their food habits, and their favorable relationship to agriculture. He presented his information using the same arrangement of families that ornithologist Elliott Coues employed in his Key to North American Birds, and the same nomenclature Coues used in A Check List of North American Birds.
He shared his information in a manner that was both exacting and engaging.
“The Cedar Bird (Ampelis cedrorum) is well known, and has been most unjustly judged,” Wheaton wrote. “It is true that he gorges himself almost to insensibility upon cherries and berries, and sometimes proves a most destructive visitor to gardens and orchards.”
After six years of research, Wheaton published his Report on the Birds of Ohio, which was included in the 1882 Report of the Geological Survey of Ohio. The report includes 298 species of birds that he personally identified after observing them in his own garden and as they flew overhead.
Wheaton was also a founding member of the American Ornithologists’ Union, an organization devoted to the scientific study of birds that is still around today. The Wheaton Club of Columbus, founded for those interested in ornithology and related branches of natural history, was named for him.
The Ohio Historical Society’s collections include Wheaton’s microscope, dating from 1850 to 1870. The German turned wood microscope is stained black, with fancy knopped posts and an optical section that consists of three biconvex lenses. Two lenses for the eye piece are mounted in a cardboard tube with wooden ends and are held in position by a wire ring. This is an oil on canvas portrait of Wheaton, also in the OHS collections, that was painted by John Henry Witt around 1880. Although my photo of it is not so hot, it shows Wheaton’s “Grizzly Adams” beard in living color. Which do you think suits him better, the beard or those mutton-chop sideburns he sported in his younger days?
The John M. Wheaton Papers (MSS 741) are housed in the Ohio Historical Society’s Archives/Library. The collection includes Wheaton’s notes about birds, as well as correspondence dating from 1873 to 1886 that covers bird sightings by fellow naturalists like Coues and the publication of the Report on the Birds of Ohio. Here’s a detail of his signature on an April 14, 1881 letter he wrote, in which he gave a progress report about an Ohio Geological Survey report on zoology.
My archival meandering took a thrilling turn when I discovered that Osman C. Hooper wrote a sketch of Wheaton’s life called “An Ohio Ornithologist,” for the May 1911 issue of The Honey Jar. This “receptacle for literary preserves filled monthly with bits of discourse meant to sweeten life” is one of my favorite things in the OHS collections.
First published in Columbus by The Champlin Press from 1898 to 1900, then by the Lea-Mar Press, The Honey Jar offered readers poetry, short stories and articles about individuals. It was printed on handmade, deckle-edged paper stock. Each issue incorporated a portrait of a literary figure as a frontispiece and a concluding bookplate reproduction. (For more about the Champlin Press and The Honey Jar, read “Printing in the Correct Style,” my article in the July-September 2006 issue of the Ohio Historical Society’s magazine, TIMELINE.)
Wheaton is buried at Green Lawn Cemetery. As Hooper wrote, “If there is one spot in that beautiful city of the dead that the birds love more than another, it must be that where lies this friend of all the feathered tribe.”