Prairie Research Institute

Illinois Natural History Survey


By 1858, Illinois had been a state for 40 years—its pioneer period was over. Railroad lines crisscrossed the state, Chicago was the largest city, and Illinois State Normal University (later Illinois State University) was the only state-supported college. Illinois had an Agricultural Society and a Horticultural Society whose members were mainly interested in tools and farming methods. For those interested in the scientific study of the state’s natural history, something new and broader in scope was needed. At the State Teachers Association meeting in December of 1857, Cyrus Thomas, a lawyer, teacher, and self-taught entomologist from Carbondale, proposed that a Natural History Society of Illinois be established.

Cyrus Thomas

On June 30, 1858, the society was organized and housed at Illinois State Normal University in Normal, Illinois. The society was legally chartered by the state legislature on Feb. 22, 1861. In its original charter, the Society was given the dual purpose of preparing “a scientific survey of the State of Illinois in all departments of natural history,” and establishing a museum of natural history at Illinois State Normal University. The Society’s first president was Jonathan Baldwin Turner, with Cyrus Thomas the first curator. With the establishment of a Natural History Museum in Springfield in 1877, the Natural History Society became the State Laboratory of Natural History. The new title brought more responsibilities. The State Laboratory was responsible for providing materials for the new Natural History Museum, supplying educational institutions and high schools with materials, continuing plant and animal surveys, and was to begin studies in economic entomology.

In 1872, Stephen A. Forbes had become the fourth appointed curator of the museum. He was named director of the new State Laboratory of Natural History in 1877, and in 1882 he became both the director of the State Laboratory of Natural History and the State Entomologist. Forbes moved from Normal to Urbana in 1885 to accept a position with the Illinois Industrial University (soon to be University of Illinois). He was able to gain approval by the state legislature to transfer the State Laboratory of Natural History and its staff, library, and research collections to Urbana.

Stephen A. Forbes in the field.

In 1917, the State Laboratory of Natural History and the Office of the State Entomologist were combined by the General Assembly, forming the Illinois Natural History Survey. Forbes became director (chief) and held this position until his death in 1930. Today, the Illinois Natural History Survey is still part of the University of Illinois.

To Forbes the word “survey” meant more than a censusing of organisms or publishing lists showing their distribution. He felt that any study should define the relationships between living organisms and their environment. This theory prevailed in his work and underlined the early research done at the Natural History Survey. In 1880 Forbes stated:

The first indispensable requisite is a thorough knowledge of the natural order—an intelligently conducted natural history survey. Without the general knowledge which such a survey would give us, all our measures must be empirical, temporary, uncertain, and often dangerous.

Stephen A. Forbes

Many components make up the Natural History Survey, but its research, collections, publications, long-term studies, and field stations have not only made the Illinois Natural History Survey the largest, but also the most successful state biological survey in the country.