Editor's Note: Excerpt from an unpublished manuscript in the Lapham papers at the Wisconsin State Historical Society. On January 23, 1840 (at age 29) Lapham gave a lecture in the Milwaukee Lyceum series; we present the portion in which he explained his philosophy on the use of the study of natural science. His advice is still good, 118 years later.
There are persons, and possibly there may be some here, who are disposed to ask--what is the use of this study? What possible benefit can it be to any person to become acquainted with the animals, plants, and minerals, by which he is surrounded?
To such I would say that if we regard it in the narrow light of money making--if we regard nothing as beneficial unless it redounds to our immediate pecuniary advantage--then these pursuits might about as well be let alone. But when we reflect that many of the states, and the General Government, are now making Geological surveys, embracing an examination of the animals and plants; and that as their importance become known and appreciated, other states will do the same--when we reflect that naturalists are attached to all our exploring Expeditions--that professorships of natural science are established in many of our colleges and universities, who will say that these pursuits may not lead to pecuniary profit. In exploring a new country like ours a knowledge of mineralogy and geology may enable us to detect the presence of valuable ores or mineral beds, whose existence might otherwise never have been suspected.
But there are other higher reasons for pursuing these studies. There is a pleasure, a pure and unalloyed pleasure connected with them that is seldom found anywhere else. Pursh, the enthusiastic botanist, would travel for whole days through almost impenetrable swamps and thickets, with a load of sixty pounds on his back, and think himself amply rewarded for all this toil, and hardship, if he could add one new plant to the Flora of the country. He experienced a pleasure in making new discoveries, far beyond what could have been afforded him by any of our ordinary means of enjoyment.
Douglass lost his life in his eagerness to extend the knowledge of plants. He was traveling as botanist for the Horticultural Society of London, and while searching for plants, he by some unfortunate mis-step, fell into a pit prepared to entrap the wild cattle, and was immediately trampled upon and killed by an infuriated bullock that had been previously caught in the trap.
An ardent love for the natural sciences has induced Thomas Nuttall to travel all over the United States in search of new plants, &c. More than 22 years ago he traveled through what is now Wisconsin, and has published in his valuable "Genera of North American Plants" many new and interesting discoveries made at Green Bay and along the Neenah and Wisconsin rivers. He has since visited the wilds of Arkansas and more recently has explored the vegetable wonders of the Rocky Mountains.
The late Thomas Say devoted his whole lifetime to these pursuits--he has, perhaps, described more new species of insects than any other modern naturalist.
Drummond visited all our northern regions, to the polar ice, and the summits of the Rocky Mountains in search of plants--and he has enriched the science with many new descoveries (sic). At one time he came very near being embraced in the unwelcome hug of a grisley (sic) bear, and being devoured by that most ferocious and dangerous of American animals. We found that he had a sure protection against them, in his tin specimen box; for by rattling upon that the bear would immediately "make off"--with all possible haste.
If the natural sciences have pleasures sufficient to induce men of learning, like these, who are able to live in ease and comfort at home, to devote themselves to their pursuits--to go through all these hardships and dangers--we may suppose that they possess some very enticing charms.
From what I have said of the extent and variety of the pursuits of a naturalist we may suppose that these pleasures--these charms--have no end. There is no life so long as to be in any danger of exhausting them. There is no condition of life debarred from these pleasures; all may study nature,--the poor as well as the rich--old, young--male and female--the ignorant--the learned--all may enjoy the pure and simple pleasures they afford. And all seasons of the year afford opportunities of studying nature--winter as well as summer. The winter is the time for reviewing, arranging and studying more minutely, the objects collected during the summer.
It is admitted by all who have any knowledge of human nature, that every person, and especially every young person, must have amusements of some kind or other. We all need some relaxation from our severer duties and studies--the mind as well as the body must have season of recreation and repose. Daily observation will convince anyone of this. We see people attending theatres, balls, and parties--we see men playing at ball, or rolling upon the Nine pin alley--we see them at the chess board, the billiard and the card table--and what is all this for, but to amuse ourselves, and, by a little relaxation, prepare ourselves for more vigorous and active exertion afterwards.
Now if it be admitted that young people must have amusements, it becomes their elders who have their welfare at heart, to provide for them those which are pure and rational, and which tend to their moral and intellectual advancement, rather than suffer them to follow every, and any amusement that may happen to fall in their way--many of which may have an opposite tendency.
Here then we have one of the most important arguments in favor of our sciences. Teach young persons to relish the pure and simple beauties of nature, excite in their bosoms an ardent and enthusiastic love of the wonderful works of the Great Creator and you have one of the surest safeguards against immorality and vice.