Our Iowa Heritage: C. C. Nutting.

At the turn of the 20th century, the State University of Iowa was in transition. Presidents Schaeffer and MacLean had proposed radical changes in the way the University would keep up with the times. During that same season, there were three professors at Iowa who made a huge impact on how all that change occurred. Some historians call this group, “The Great Triumvirate” of the State University of Iowa.

Most recognize the names Thomas Macbride and Samuel Calvin, but fewer know of the third person of “The Great Triumvirate.”

Meet Charles Cleveland Nutting, who served as professor of natural science and curator of the Natural History Museum from 1886 -1927.

Charles C. Nutting, Thomas Macbride, Samuel Calvin – “The Great Triumvirate.”

Charles Cleveland Nutting was a popular and well-respected scientist and individual. Books and articles championed him as a modern man, a pioneer, an interesting orator whose lectures sold out of space every time he gave speeches about his expedition.

C. C. Nutting, as he signed his papers, was born May 25, 1858 in Jacksonville, Illinois. The future naturalist who would later champion Darwin was born to a long line of religious men. His father Reverend Rufus Nutting Junior was Doctor of Divinity.

Charles was an early adventurer. In high school he was already planning expeditions with his friends. One such expedition was to go to Central America with two of his classmates. “They were going to paddle down the Mississippi and across the Gulf of Mexico.” It comes as no surprise to find out that later in Nutting’s life his library would hold the complete works of Mark Twain.

Charles met his future wife Lizzie Hersman at Blackburn College. They were married, August 10, 1886, the same year that Charles came to Iowa City to work as curator of the museum and instructor in Natural Science under Samuel Calvin. As the museum’s collection grew, so did Nutting’s concern for their storage. The collection consisted of hundreds of boxes piled in the attic. He persistently asked for proper conditions to house the valuable specimens but his true and great goal was to have a complete museum in which the entire collection could be displayed.


(P-0027) Natural Science Building (Macbride Hall).

Professor Nutting dreamed of a museum with a great zoology department with a “study” museum and a “collection of animals so complete and arranged that it would illustrate the evolutionary progress of life in order that students could see that progress graphically, vividly illustrated.” And indeed, in 1906 a fine stone building was competed and was to be called the Natural Science Building (now Macbride Hall). It was supposed to house all branches of the old “Cabinet of Natural History” as well as the museums and herbarium.

North Hall Fire – 1897.


These plans all went up in smoke when lightning struck North Hall in 1897. The University Library was housed on the second floor at the time and nearly all of it was lost in the resulting fire. Those pieces that remained were eventually moved back into a renovated North Hall, but long term, the Library needed a more secure location. So, when the new Hall of Natural Science finally opened in 1906, the Library took priority over Nutting’s dream of expanding his life work. With an auditorium taking up what space was left on the second and third floors, Nutting got only the two ends of the new building for his museum and zoology department, while the geology and botany departments remained in old Science Hall (Calvin Hall), now moved across the street.


Calvin Hall – a temporary home.

In 1926, the year before Professor Nutting died, his department was moved completely out of the new Natural Science Building and into the vacated Medical College Building.


(P-0110) Medical College Building.

Through thick and through thin, Professor Nutting stood behind his department and the museum. When fighting for what he believed in, Nutting was known to stand up to the President of the University. “He was not afraid to antagonize the whole world if in that manner he thought he could accomplish a desirable purpose. His sincerity was never questioned, he was respected for it, and no one seems to have been appointed to more committees than he.”


While things were constantly changing at the University, so did Charles Nutting’s personal life. Lizzie, his wife, passed away after the birth of their daughter Caroline, and Charles’ sister Catherine moved in to help with the family. Charles was a loving father and respected his daughter so much that it was her permission he sought when he wished to ask Eloise Willis to be his wife.

C. C. Nutting died January 23, 1927 at his home in Iowa City. He had been with the University of Iowa for over forty years. While it is true that he did suffer health problems during the last years of his life he staunchly ignored them and continued to go about his daily life never making reference to them. It was the changing outlook on science by others that hurt him more than any physical ailments.

Sadly, it was only after Nutting’s death that his dream of a permanent museum was finally fulfilled. Eventually, the Hall of Natural Science (MacBride Hall) became the home for his vast zoology collection and it has been enjoyed by countless visitors over the years. Indeed, Nutting left a legacy at the University that will not be forgotten despite the lack of a building in his honor. His ideals and real soul values influenced everyone with whom he came into contact. His work and his words continue to inspire people today.  Click here to read Cynthia Simpson’s full biographical account.


(C-0039)  A personal letter from C.C. Nutting, mailed from his State University of Iowa office in Iowa City on January 3, 1927 (see postmark on back side). The letter was registered with return postage guaranteed (20-cents) and addressed to Rev. J. M. Ross, D.D. in Erie, PA. Rev. Ross was Charles’s brother-in-law married to his sister Helen Louise. The letter arrived in Erie on Jan. 4, and in North Erie on Jan. 5, just eighteen days before Nutting died (Jan 23, 1927) in Iowa City.

Click here to go on to the next section…

Click here for a complete INDEX of Our Iowa Heritage stories…

Click here for a complete INDEX of PEOPLE-PLACES-THINGS…

Click here for a complete INDEX of stories listed CHRONOLOGICALLY…

Click here for a numerical INDEX to all of the U.S. postage stamps, postal cards, and coins in our collection…