Natural history is defined as the study of plants and animals byobservation rather than experimentation and the presentation of the results of the study in popular language and publications rather than in academic language and scholarly journals. More specifically, it involves, according to T. L. Fleischer, “intentional, focused attentiveness and receptivity to the more than human world, guided by honesty and accuracy.” Natural history involves studying the relationship of organisms to their environment and the classification of organisms. It includes the disciplines of zoology, mineralogy, geology, paleontology, and sometimes ancient humans.
Sedalia lawyer and banker Francis A. Sampson made a name for himself in the study of natural history. His enthusiasm for his studies led him to amass a large library of books, pamphlet, maps, charts, and specimens. In the chapter about the natural history of Pettis County in the 1882 History of Pettis County, he shared his enthusiasm.
Sampson was active in the Natural History Society in Sedalia. This group met regularly to share what they had observed about nature and what specimens of plants, animals, and fossils they had found.
Sampson wished to establish a Natural History Society of Central Missouri, a group that would be able to share what they had learned through a natural history museum or library. An unnamed donor had offered $3,000 for such a society, and Sampson hoped a natural history society would create an interest in the natural world in young people. He also hoped to eliminate some of the ignorance of the natural world that plagued much of the adult population.
Sampson wrote the chapter on the natural history of Pettis County in the 1882 History of Pettis County. The 19 pages in the chapter begins with an acknowledgment of how little was actually known about the natural history of the area.
Part of the classification of organisms involves identifying the genus and species. It is common to name a new species after the scientist or natural historian who first discovered the species. Sampson was particularly interested in the fossilized shells that remained from the prehistoric times when Central Missouri was under water and the fossilized remains of other prehistoric creatures. Two of these organisms were named for him.
One of the organisms was a land shell named polygyra sampsoni, a nautilus type shell about 7-9 millimeters in diameter. The other organism named for Sampson was a Cretaceous fossil named ostrea sampsoni, a prehistoric oyster found throughout much of the central United States as well as in Great Britain.
In addition to studying the natural world, Sampson studied and wrote about 19th century Missouri life. He kept records of the work of the Methodist Church. He gathered a large library of information about Missouri.
In 1901, Sampson became secretary of the State Historical Society of Missouri, the first salaried person to have this position. He donated his library of 2,343 books, 3,678 pamphlets, 125 maps and charts about Missouri’s natural history and human history to the society, assuring, in the words of historian Alan Havig, the continuation and success of the society. He worked to get space at the University of Missouri to house the library. Sampson served as secretary until 1915, and continued to work for the society until 1918. He helped organize the Missouri Valley Historical Association.
Sampson’s work lives on in the work of scientists and historians today who continue to study the world around them. The organizations he worked for and organized continue to foster an interest in the natural and created world.
Rhonda Chalfant is the president of the Pettis County chapter of NAACP and the Pettis County Historical Society.