Monday, August 27, 2012

John Whipple Potter Jenks (1819-94)

John Whipple Potter Jenks was a noted educator and naturalist who at one time was principal of Middleborough's Peirce Academy. Jenks was included in the comprehnsive Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography and his entry outlines his life and accomplishments as follows:

JENKS, John Whipple Potter, naturalist, born in West Boylston, Massachusetts, 1 May, 1819. He was graduated at Brown in 1838, was principal of Peirce academy from 1842 till 1871, professor of zoology in Boston horticultural society in 1858-'60, and has held the chair of agricultural zoology and the curatorship of the museum in Brown university since 1873. In the promotion of his profession he has been an extensive traveller in almost every country in Europe, and also since 1885 in every state and territory of the Union. The gathering of the extensive collections of Brown university is mainly due to his labors. He was the first naturalist to explore the everglades of Florida and the region around Lake Okechobee. Mr. Jenks's publications include bulletins on the "Food of Birds "in the annual reports of the Boston horticultural society (1859); "Hunting in Florida" (1874); and "Jenks and Steele's Zoology," a text book for high schools (1876, revised ed., 1887).

Upon Jenks' death on September 26, 1894, the following obituary was carried in one of the local Middleborough newspapers.  Despite the purple prose, the item provides a good overview of Jenks' life and career.  Jenks was known later in life as Professor of Agricultural Zoology at Brown University and curator of that school's Jenks Museum.

John Whipple Potter Jenks, the son of Dr. Nicholas and Betsey Potter Jenks, was born in West Boylston, Mass., May 1st, 1819. He was very carefully trained from earliest childhood in the strictest sense to be good, to pay attention to religious matters, to read and to love the Word of God, to attend the services of divine worship upon the Sabbath, and this, in connection with his natural bias to the devotional and religious, brought him when a mere boy into fellowship with the Christian church, and he was baptized by Rev. Addison Parker, pastor of the Baptist church in Southbridge. Quick and active in temperament, and naturally inclined to be a student, a trivial circumstance when on a journey with the Rev. Dr. Joseph parker, a scholarly divine and an eminent educator himself, led him to give his energy to acquire a liberal education. He thoroughly appreciated the struggle and self-denial needful in accomplishing this task but his indomitable will knew no obstacle, and, encouraged and aided by his brother-in-law, Rev. Hervey Fittz, pastor of the Baptist church in Middleboro, in whose family he lived from 1832 to 1834, at fifteen years of age, in 1834, he entered the Class of 1838 in Brown University. This class was celebrated for its distinguished educators, (among whom was the late Dr. Ezekiel G. Robinson, for many years president of his alma mater,) prominent ministers, judges and statesmen, men who have filled eminent positions in every department of literary life, the class especially having always been considered the most eminent of the University.

On completing his course with great merit to himself he pushed out into the world, to brave its conflicts, to meet every possible emergency, and to do the best he could to advance education, as he felt that God had called him to this special mission instead of being a minister of the gospel. Immediately on graduation he went to Georgia as a teacher under the patronage and wise guidance of his much-admired friend, Dr. Parker, and after remaining in the South four or five years he came to Middleboro in 1842 and at once took up the task of strengthening Pierce [sic] Academy, which then was in a languishing condition. At this time he married Sarah Tucker, daughter of Elisha and Sarah P. Tucker [and granddaughter of Levi Peirce], and for forty years they walked in pleasant union until in July, 1884, the golden cord, for time, was severed. Prof. Jenks, at 24 years of age, with all the characteristic impulses of an ardent nature, with strong mental endowments, devoted himself to the herculean task of reviving an almost defunct institution. Most wonderful were the results of his laudable ambition, and in 1854 and 1855 he had with the corps of able assistants, among whom was Charles C. Burnett, A. M., the classical instructor for several years, and John M. Manning, the mathematical, and many beside, brought Pierce Academy to a very high rank of literary excellence, as her numerous graduates, filling most important positions in life, will abundantly testify. He remained with the academy until 1871, and during his incumbency it had hundreds of pupils, some of them coming from distant part[s] of the country and some from other countries, although its attendance was largely made up of pupils from southern and eastern Massachusetts.

This town is greatly indebted to him for what has been done through him, as an educator, as also to promote her civil, social, moral, and religious interests. But as a great teacher Prof. Jenks especially shone. While excellent in all departments of learning, or, in other words, a well-balanced scholar, he particularly was a wonderful proficient in gathering and preserving specimens from all the orders of nature, and so his own alma mater, Brown University, in 1871, appreciating his superior gifts in this special direction, called upon him to devote his energies and skills to the establishment of a museum so that she might take good rank with other colleges of the land. Here he was at home, holding the chair of agricultural zoology and curatorship of the zoological and anthropological museums until the day of his death, and one need only to visit Brown University to see how successfully he has performed his work. There in the Jenks museum, equipped for the most part at his expense, the products of his remarkable research are displayed, his labors in this line being furthered by his associations in scientific departments with men like Agassiz, as also by means of extensive travel in Europe in 1859 and more latterly throughout America. He has written many scientific articles for the most prominent periodicals, and has published several valuable text books, and it is almost impossible, so vast was his range of mental activities, to tell wherein his loss will be most keenly felt.

For sixty years Prof. Jenks has been identified not only with the scientific but also with the religious world, and, spiritually, he certainly let his light so shine as to glorify his Heavenly Father. His presence and connection with the Central Baptist church in this town were a continual benefaction, and while his loss is almost irreparable in many respects in the several departments of Belles Lettres, yet no less will it be realized by the church with which he was for so many years so closely and intimately associated. Truly Middleboro has great cause for rejoicing that she had as a citizen, a man of such eminence in scholarship and piety, and we trust that his sudden departure will help all to be less aspiring to great worldly honors, but like him to live nobly for the cause of humanity, and thereby give an assured evidence of an abundant entrance at last into the eternal kingdom.

Prof. Jenks, who ahs spent his winters for the past decade in Florida, has seemingly been in excellent health since his return last spring, and entered upon his work at the university this month with his oldtime zeal. This week he had not been feeling well as usual, but attended to his duties until Wednesday, when the death-stroke came with startling suddenness. He went to his dinner as usual at noon, telling his assistant that he should return soon after dinner. He did not do so, however, and shortly after 3 o’clock some visitors reported that they had seen a man’s body lying at the foot of the stairs leading to the museum. An investigation proved it to be the body of Prof. Jenks. The physician ho was summoned stated that death was due to heart disease. There was genuine sorrow among the 800 students at the university when the news of the death became known.

A family of children, Elisha T. Jenks and Mrs. Abbie L. Simmons of this town and Mrs. Sadie B. Stockwell of Ipswich, grandchildren, one surviving sister, who has attained to a greater age than any one of Dr. Jenks’ children, and a younger brother are left, besides friends innumerable, and citizens, to mourn his loss. But to him, whose life work was so fully accomplished, it is an infinite and unspeakable gain.

"Obituary", Middleboro Gazette or Middleboro News, September 26, 1894.

John Whipple Potter Jenks and Brown University Taxidermy Class, photograph, 1875
Jenks, the distinguished bearded and top-hatted gentleman in the center rear poses with members of his taxidermy class at Brown University in Providence in 1875.  Taxidermy was a requisite skill for naturalists of the era who sought to create life-like zoological displays.  Jenks is said to have learned taxidermy at Boston, though he may have been guided by Solomon H. Sylvester, a Middleborough merchant with a variety of interests.  In 1865, Sylvester published The Taxidermists' Manual, Giving Full Instructions in Mounting and Preserving Birds, Mammals, Insects, Fishes, Reptiles, Skeletons, Eggs, Etc.  This work is said to be the first such manual employing the word "taxidermist" in the title, and it is unlikely that Jenks, a fellow Middleborough resident, would have been unaware of it or Sylvester's taxidermy work which at times was featured in Sylvester's shop window.

Jenks Museum, Rhode Island Hall, photograph, late 19th-early 20th century
What would serve as Brown University's natural history museum, the Jenks Museum was founded by and named for Professor Jenks.  Many of the specimens which Jenks first displayed in the museum originated from Peirce Academy in Middleborough where Jenks served as principal and where he maintained a natural history collection for the benefit of students there.  A 1900 fire destroyed a portion of the museum along with Jenks' considerable notes.  Defunct by 1915, the museum's specimens are reported to have been disposed of in a dump.


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