John Widgeon described himself as a “collector” for the Maryland Academy of Science, now the Maryland Science Center. Today he would likely be recognized as a collections manager or even curator given the magnitude of his contributions as a
and the sole collector of specimens during his tenure. Widgeon procured a wide variety of aquatic and terrestrial species, from Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and Pennsylvania. He also made collecting trips to the West Indies, where he learned to dive in order to collect corals in the region. Some of his collections were “discoveries new to science.”
John Widgeon was born into slavery in 1850 in Northampton county, Virginia. In his brief autobiography, he recalls his life in bondage remarking that he had never thought of freedom. As a child, he spent much of his free time exploring the marsh near his home and hunting down animals, eggs and nests. He also loved swimming, which would prove useful in his later collecting of marine species.
When slavery was finally abolished, he was a young adult with only two years of formal education. Despite that, Widgeon developed a deep appreciation for knowledge. He moved to Baltimore in 1870. After several short stints in different kinds of manual labor, Widgeon decided it just didn’t suit him. He was craving intellectual stimulation and an opportunity to expand his knowledge. He found a job in photography which gave him a greater sense of fulfillment, but he still wasn’t sure it was the right fit. He still pined for the natural world he had explored as a child.
In 1874, he found work as a janitor at the Maryland Academy of Science. In less than a year, he transitioned to the roll of collector. Over the next two years he collected and prepared specimens for the academy and John Hopkins. Notable additions were fossils, a type specimen for a fish species, a finback whale and the Jamaican corals that were featured as one of the principal exhibits. Unfortunately, he had to leave the academy in 1876 as they did not have the funds to pay him. He continued to work as a scientist, this time a chemist at a local firm.
In 1892, Widgeon had the opportunity to return to the academy and resume his position as collector. By that time, the academy had suffered significant losses, so Widgeon was instrumental in rebuilding the collection which grew quickly. The academy had to move buildings twice to accommodate new acquisitions.
I have given my best days to the Academy of Sciences and to its interest in every respect. So what I have done will be seen and remembered hereafter.
Widgeon later received an honorary Master of Science degree, a testimony to the expertise he garnered over years of diligent scientific work. Despite his obvious qualifications, Widgeon’s accomplishments were diminished because of his race. In the article published alongside his autobiography, the reporter referred to him as “a man of inferior race from slavery and ignorance to a position of respect in a community of white people.” The emphasis here is on the white validation of his excellence despite being a Black man, which perpetuates the narrative that Black people who succeed in any discipline, including science, are exceptions among their communities. This still happens in academic spaces today, and is harmful, inappropriate and simply untrue.
John Widgeon said “I have given my best days to the Academy of Sciences and to its interest in every respect. So what I have done will be seen and remembered hereafter.” Although the Maryland Academy of Science no longer exists as he knew it, we hope that sharing his story will keep the memory of his dedication and contributions alive.