Steere, Joseph Beal, 1842-1940

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Naturalist, professor of zoology and paleontology at the University of Michigan.

From the description of Steere, Joseph B. papers, 1861-1941. (University of Michigan). WorldCat record id: 34419621

From the description of Joseph B. Steere papers, 1861-1941. (University of Michigan). WorldCat record id: 83428555

Joseph Beal Steere (1842-1940) was born in Rollin, Michigan. He studied and worked in the fields of zoology and paleontology, and was a professor at the University of Michigan. He received his bachelor's degree from Michigan University in 1968, and an honorary Ph.D. in 1875. He participated on several expeditions in conjunction with the State Museum of Michigan (1870-1875), and the University of Michigan (1876-1893). During these years he conducted field work in South America (Amazon), and Asia, including China, the Philippines, and Moluccas. He collected specimens for the Smithsonian Institution, 1901.

Smithsonian Institution Archives Field Book Project: Person : Description : rid_321_pid_EACP318

Joseph Beal Steere was born February 9, 1842, in a house on Bean Creek, in the township of Rollin, Lenawee County, Michigan. His parents, William Millhouse Steere and Elizabeth Cleghorn Steere (nee Beal), were of pioneer Quaker stock. Both had brief careers as teachers before they married and turned to farming. In 1848 the Steere family moved by railroad and canal to Covington, Kentucky, on account of the father's poor health. In 1849 they moved again, to a spot twelve miles from Cincinnati.

After the entire family recovered from a bout with typhoid the next year, the Steeres returned to Michigan by wagon. In 1851, when Joseph was nine years old, he was sent to live with his uncle, to work to earn his keep.

In 1853 the Steeres moved to the "Miner Settlement" in Bloomer Center, Montcalm County. Steere recalled that school became important to him at this time. He had always enjoyed reading, but now he began to push himself to excel.

In 1858 Dr. George Pray, one of the earliest graduates from the University of Michigan, moved to a farm not far from the Steere home. Pray made a generous offer to prepare any interested student for college. Joseph Steere took up his offer, and he began to study with Dr. Pray on a weekly basis.

Steere was nineteen when the Civil War broke out. He wanted to enlist, but he was unable to, in part because of his father's opposition. So he remained at home and studied and taught school.

During the Civil War Steere moved to Ann Arbor, where he lived with Dr. Pray. Believing that he needed further formal education, Steere obtained permission to attend Ann Arbor High School. While two of his brothers did ultimately fight for the Union, Steere's enthusiasm to participate was tempered by his desire to receive an education. He never did enlist.

While in Ann Arbor, Steere became acquainted with the town's first botanist, Miss Mary Clark, who ran a girls' school. Steere had been interested in the workings of the natural world since childhood, but it is possible that his friendship with Miss Clark was instrumental in directing him toward a career in natural history.

After Steere was graduated from high school, he worked on his father's farm until he passed the University of Michigan entrance exam. He began his college education in September, 1864. Although he had become interested in natural history, he entered the University of Michigan Law School in 1868. He earned his degree two years later.

He did not practice law. Instead he embarked on an extensive world tour to gather collections for the University of Michigan Museum. His mother's cousin, Rice A. Beal--owner and publisher of the Ann Arbor Courier--agreed to pay for the expedition if Steere would write letters from his journey to be published in the Courier. Steere's travels lasted more than four years, taking him across the Andes (by horse and by foot) into Peru, and then east to China, Formosa (Taiwan), the Philippines, the Malaccas, and the Dutch Moluccas.

Steere shipped home thousands of specimens of birds, reptiles, mammals, and plants. On the Island of Marajo he excavated huge prehistoric burial mounds. He obtained rare manuscripts from Formosa, and he studied fifteen previously unknown tribes along the Amazon. He was especially interested in native dialects, and he compiled phonetic studies of several different languages.

His work in the Philippines was particularly notable. Many of the islands he visited had never been scientifically studied. He added at least sixty species of birds to the known Philippine avifauna, and he did extensive work on the distribution of animals throughout the archipelago.

In 1875, when Steere reached Singapore, he received word that he had received the University of Michigan's first honorary doctorate, in recognition of his scientific achievements. At the same time he was made an Assistant Professor.

The following year the Regents appointed Steere Assistant Professor of Paleontology and Curator of the Museum to which he had donated his collection. This was the first such museum to be built on the campus of a state university, and, consequently, a large variety of contributions began to pour into the new museum, including the Chinese collection that had been exhibited at the World's Industrial Fair, 1884-1885, in New Orleans. (In April of 1876, shortly after assuming his new responsibilities at the University of Michigan, Steere had spent some time in the British Museum collecting and perfecting data for his own collections.)

In 1879 Steere became a full Professor of Zoology and Paleontology. During that year he returned to the Amazon with a party of male university students. In the space of three months they collected over a thousand specimens of birds, mammals, reptiles, and fish.

In 1887 Steere requested a year's leave of absence, and again leading a party of five younger men, he returned to the Philippines. Three years later he went back to the Amazon, this time under the auspices of the Smithsonian Institution. He studied the Hypurinas, Jamadi, and Paumari Indians.

Steere resigned from the University in 1894. He had been asked to resign by the Regents, possibly, as he maintained, because his outspoken stance on temperance had angered the local German community.

After retiring, Steere spent the rest of his life on his farm near Ypsilanti. In 1901, however, he was again in the Amazon region, collecting for the Smithsonian's exhibition for the International Exposition in Buffalo. He continued to take an interest in scientific trends, and he carried on correspondence with his former colleagues and with people working for Prohibition.

Steere was an intensely religious man. He was active in the Methodist Sunday School and in the temperance movement. He sided with the Darwinists in the great nineteenth century debate over evolution versus creationism, but he was a strong proponent of what he called "argument from design." He believed that the natural world provided ample proof of the existence of a Designer, for he felt that life was too meticulously formed and intricately linked to be merely the result of fortuitous and random accidents.

Steere's later writings reflect his thoughts on religion, philosophy, and evolution. He began an autobiography when he was 89 years old, a work that showed a fine memory for detail, particularly details from his childhood years. He wrote some verse and numerous moralistic children's stories--many of them with animals living in authentic woodland settings.

Steere married Helen Buzzard on September 30, 1879. Before their marriage she had been the principal of the first ward school of Ann Arbor. The couple had five daughters and four sons.

Steere died on December 7, 1940. He was ninety-eight years old. Accolades for his lifetime accomplishments came from, among others, the University of Michigan, from the community of natural sciences, and from the Philippine National Council.

From the guide to the Joseph Beal Steere Papers, 1861-1941, (Bentley Historical Library University of Michigan)

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
creatorOf Steere, Joseph B. (Joseph Beal), 1842-1940. Steere, Joseph B. papers, 1861-1941. University of Michigan, Bentley Historical Library
referencedIn Campbell family papers, 1860-1865 and 1879-1949 Bentley Historical Library , University of Michigan
referencedIn University of Michigan Faculty and Staff Portraits, ca. 1860-ca. 1960 Bentley Historical Library , University of Michigan
creatorOf Joseph Beal Steere Papers, 1861-1941 Bentley Historical Library , University of Michigan
referencedIn University of Michigan. Museum of Zoology. Museum of Zoology (University of Michigan) records, 1876-1999 (bulk 1910-1955 and 1975-1989) University of Michigan, Bentley Historical Library
referencedIn Alexander Winchell Papers, 1833-1891 Bentley Historical Library , University of Michigan
creatorOf Steere, Joseph Beal, 1842-1940. Joseph B. Steere papers, 1861-1941. University of Michigan, Bentley Historical Library
creatorOf Hubbell, Theodore, 1897-1989. Theodore Hubbell papers, 1833-1988 (bulk 1852-1970). University of Michigan, Bentley Historical Library
referencedIn James B. Angell Papers, 1845-1916 Bentley Historical Library , University of Michigan
creatorOf Steere, Joseph Beal, 1842-1940. The origin and meaning of animal groups / J.B. Steere. The Field Museum Library, The Field Museum of Natural History
referencedIn University of Michigan. Museum of Zoology. Museum of Zoology (University of Michigan) records, 1876-1981 (bulk 1910-1955). University of Michigan, Bentley Historical Library
referencedIn Theodore H. Hubbell papers, 1833-1988, 1852-1970 Bentley Historical Library , University of Michigan
referencedIn Museum of Zoology (University of Michigan) records, 1876-1999, 1910-1955, 1975-1999 Bentley Historical Library , University of Michigan
Role Title Holding Repository
Relation Name
associatedWith Agassiz, Alexander, 1835-1910. person
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associatedWith Bartlett, Harley Harris, 1886-1960. person
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associatedWith Baur, George. person
associatedWith Beal family. family
associatedWith Beal, Junius Emery, 1860-1942. person
associatedWith Beal, W. J. (William James), 1833-1924. person
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associatedWith Woolridge, C. W. person
associatedWith Woolridge, C. W. person
Place Name Admin Code Country
Philippines
East Asia
China
Michigan--Ann Arbor
Amazon River.
Amazon River
South America
South America
East Asia
Philippines
South America.
China
East Asia.
China
Amazon River
Philippines
Subject
Evolution (Biology)
Expeditions and surveys
Animals--Adaptation
Travelers
Philosophy
Travel
Scientific expeditions
Indians of South America
Evolution--Religious aspects
Zoology
Naturalists--Religious life--Michigan--Ann Arbor
Animals--Speciation
Voyages and travels
Naturalists--Religious life
Religion
Occupation
Naturalist
Function

Person

Birth 1842-02-09

Death 1940-12-07

English

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