William Temple Hornaday (1854-1937) is a crucial figure in National Zoo history; he was the taxidermist who first envisioned the Zoo and lobbied to Congress to create an official National Zoological Park. Before initiating this idea, Hornaday was one of several naturalists who helped collect bison from the American West as their population dwindled.
Throughout his life, Hornaday was a champion for American bison; in addition to acting as the driving force for the creation of the National Zoo in 1889, that same year he penned the book The Extermination of the American Bison, a conservation-driven piece that aimed to defend the species.
Hornaday founded the National Bison Society and promoted the creation of the National Bison Ranges in Montana and Kansas.
After serving as a taxidermist at Iowa State Agricultural College and Ward’s Natural Science Establishment in Rochester, New York, Hornaday undertook a series of scientific expeditions to Florida, Cuba, the Bahamas, South America, India, Sri Lanka, the Malay Peninsula and Borneo in the 1870s. He soon became known for his dramatic “life groups” of animals in natural settings for museum displays.
Hornaday Joins the Smithsonian’s National Museum
In 1882, he was appointed chief taxidermist of the United States National Museum at the Smithsonian Institution. In 1886, Hornaday traveled to Montana to collect specimens of American bison for a display at the National Museum, since it was widely believed that the bison would soon be extinct due to hunting for their hides.
Hornaday was shocked to see that the large herds he had seen years earlier had vanished, and only a few animals survived. He collected specimens for his display, but also dedicated the remainder of his life to the conservation of this species. He also acquired live specimens, which he brought to Washington, DC, and placed on display behind the Smithsonian Castle.
From Taxidermist to Zoo Director
Hornaday’s goal was to educate the American people about the magnificent bison and generate interest in environmental conservation. The bison exhibit behind the Smithsonian Castle was very popular with visitors. So popular, in fact, that Congress created the Smithsonian National Zoological Park in 1888 and Hornaday served as its first director.
What Happened to Hornaday?
William Temple Hornaday, driving force behind the creation of the National Zoo, resigned in 1889 after clashing with the Smithsonian’s new leader, Samuel Pierpont Langley. The Washington Critic called the 36-year-old’s departure “a great loss for the government.”
Hornaday and his wife moved, fittingly enough, to Buffalo, New York, where he became a real estate developer and freelance writer. Then, in 1896, came the offer of a lifetime: to join the New York Zoological Society as creator and director of what would become the Bronx Zoo. He remained there for the next thirty years, continuing his work to emphasize the importance of saving American native wildlife. He served as its director until 1926.
In this letter dated December 2, 1887, Hornaday addresses Professor George Brown Goode, director of the National Museum, expressing concerns about the conservation of bison.[ Read Full Letter Here ]
William Temple Hornaday’s varied career can be seen in these images, from his early work as a taxidermist for the U.S. National Museum, to his interest in the American bison after his 1886 field trip, and his role as the founding director of the National Zoological Park.[ View Full Image Gallery Here ]
This content is drawn from the Smithsonian Institution Archives.