When Billionaires Trusted in Science

A few weeks ago I visited some friends who live on Long Island. We had planned to go to Sagamore Hill, the country estate of Theodore Roosevelt. However, upon learning that we needed advance reservations, we decided instead to visit the ‘Eagle’s Nest,’ the less well-known estate of William K. Vanderbilt, grandson of the American railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt.

When his father died, William inherited $55 million dollars – approximately $1.5 billion in today’s dollars. Though he inherited the responsibility of managing his father’s business empire, he was largely content to pass daily administrative duties on to managers, freeing himself for a life of leisure, adventure, and – perhaps surprisingly to the modern reader – science.

When visiting the Eagle’s Nest, I was surprised to learn that William K. Vanderbilt was an enthusiastic supporter of oceanography and marine biology. On his property, just above his summer residence, he established the largest private fish collection museum in the United States, and he opened it to the public in 1932.

William K. Vanderbilt was part of a generation of wealthy Americans – Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, Carnegies, Roosevelts – who devoted part of their fortunes to philanthropy, public education, and environmental conservation. To quote Andrew Carnegie: “surplus wealth is a sacred trust to be administered during life by its possessor for the best good of his fellow men[.]” Public natural history museums were part of a collective project to promote model citizenship. In the words of Henry Fairfield Osborn, President of the Natural History Museum of New york, science exhibits could instruct students to “become more reverent, more truthful, and more interested in the simple and natural laws of their being and better citizens of the future through each visit.” (It bears to mention, however, that these same exhibits also helped promote racist pseudoscience).

Much like Prince Albert 1st of Monaco, William Vanderbilt used his private yachts to carry out dredging and specimen collection. Under his patronage, the collections recovered were studied and the results published in bulletins which were disseminated to the leading scientific institutions of the country. As a result of his efforts, 67 new marine species were identified.

Our fancies have wandered to remote harbors. Imperceptibly, thoughts of the past turned into wishes for the future. We desire to see again endless waters, starbeams in lonely regions, streaks of dawn over fairy islands, swift-gliding outrigger canoes and people whose outlook upon life is different from our own.

  • William K. Vanderbilt (1931)

Today, the Vanderbilt fortune is long gone. Time has eaten away at the vestiges of William’s estate. After his death in 1944, the property was deeded to the local county and the endowment has proved insufficient for the cost of maintenance. The ornamented plaster facades are crumbling. Nets have been put up to protect visitors from falling debris. Nevertheless, to step into the Vanderbilt mansion is to feel transported back in time.

Though faded, the buildings still convey something of the lavish opulence that America’s ruling class once enjoyed. We are reminded of a time of great social and racial inequality – and its continued legacy. But Vanderbilt’s museum also serves as a memorial to a period in American history when the pursuit of scientific knowledge, and patronage of scientific work, was viewed as worthy –  even the civic duty of those with means.

[To learn more about William K. Vanderbilt I recommend this article.]

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