C.C. Nutting – Hidden Gem Of The Great SUI Triumvirate.

At the turn of the 20th century, the State University of Iowa (SUI) was in the midst of a huge transition. In 1897, SUI President Charles A. Schaeffer proposed a radical change in the way the University would keep up with the changing times. By 1899, the new SUI President – George MacLean – proposed a dramatic ‘New University‘ plan which would eliminate all of the existing buildings surrounding Old Capitol (above right), replacing them with three modern facilities – all similar in size and style to the Liberal Arts Building (above left) on University Square. Read more here.

SUI’s University Square as it appeared around 1890.

During this same season, there were three SUI professors who made a huge impact on how all this dramatic change occurred. Some Iowa historians call this group of naturalists who explored the entire realm of natural science – The Great SUI Triumvirate.

While most readers will recognize these names: Thomas Macbride and Samuel Calvin – I’m guessing that fewer of you are familiar with the third person of this trio of SUI professors.

Allow me to introduce – Charles Cleveland Nutting – Professor of Natural Science and Curator of the SUI Museum of Natural History – 1886 -1927.

While many don’t recognize the name, Nutting was a popular and well-respected scientist and individual. Books and articles at the turn-of-the-century championed him as a modern man, a pioneer, a world traveler, and a captivating orator whose lectures often sold out every time he offered talks about his exotic expeditions. 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, with his father – Rev. Rufus Nutting Jr. – earning a Doctorate in Divinity.

Without a doubt – Charles was an adventurer. In high school, he was already planning expeditions with his friends with one such idea being an adventure to Central America with two of his classmates – paddling down the Mississippi River and across the Gulf of Mexico! Good thing he never fulfilled that dream!

Charles met his future wife – Elizabeth (Lizzie) Hersman – at Blackburn College in Carlinville, Illinois. They were married on August 10, 1886, and that same year, Nutting came to Iowa City as a graduate student working under the tutelage of Professors Samuel Calvin and Thomas Macbride. Here, he quickly won favor in the department, being appointed Curator of the Museum of Natural History, and serving as an instructor in Natural Science. In 1889, he was named head of the newly organized Department of Systematic Zoology.

The Science Building opened for classes in 1885. The first floor contained the Geology Department – headed by Samuel Calvin, the second floor hosted the Biology Department – directed by Thomas Macbride, and the third floor housed the Museum of Natural Historyunder the direction of C.C. Nutting.

As the museum’s collection grew, so did Nutting’s concern for its storage. When Charles first arrived in Iowa City, the entire collection was stored in hundreds of boxes piled in the attic of Science Hall (see above). As the youngest staff member, Charles persistently asked for proper storage conditions to house the valuable specimens, but with classroom space being so limited, his requests were always denied. Yet, being the persistent man that he was, Nutting never gave up his dream to eventually have a complete museum – a campus building in which the entire SUI collection could be displayed.

(P-0025) The new Hall of Liberal Arts began construction in 1898 and was completed by 1902.

As we mentioned earlier, in 1897, President Schaeffer announced a new building project – the Hall of Liberal Arts (Schaeffer Hall) – and as construction began, there was a slight hope that when the building was completed, there just might be some extra space available for Nutting’s museum in Science Hall.

But, all of Charles’ dreams were short-lived – because on June 19, 1897, North Hall – a major campus building adjacent to Science Hall – was struck by lightening – destroying the entire second floor. Read more here.

Interestingly, while this temporary loss of North Hall did, in fact, hurt Nutting’s short-term plans, it did also stir the State Regents to seriously consider the growing need for additional buildings on the SUI campus. And, as we mentioned, when the new SUI President George MacLean announced his ‘New University’ plan (1900) – which included the construction of a new Hall of Natural Science – Charles Nutting’s dream was back on track.

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(P-0027) Hall of Natural Science (Macbride Hall) was proposed in 1900 – but construction didn’t start until 1905.

With plans underway for the construction of a new Hall of Natural Science, Professor Nutting began plotting out his dream of a large natural history museum with an enlarged zoology department 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.” His plans were so convincing, that most credit C.C. Nutting alone as the one man on campus who actually made the Hall of Natural Science happen! But, once again, a devastating campus fire changed all of these plans once more!

With the immediate loss of two major campus buildings in 1901, there was, both good news and bad. On the plus side, now that SUI was desperately short of space, President MacLean’s ‘New University’ building plan was put into high gear. But the bad news here was that even with the construction of the new Hall of Natural Science, other campus programs, and particularly the growing SUI library, would need to take preference over Charles’ museum idea.

So, in reality, when the Hall finally opened in 1906, the SUI Library and other departmental offices took over most of the first floor, with the new auditorium eating up the remainder of the space on the second and third floors. When it was all said and done, Nutting, his Zoology Department, and his proposed Museum of Natural History got only a handful of rooms in the new building, while the Geology and Botany departments remained in the older Science Hall – which had now been moved across Jefferson Street. Read more here.

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(P-0110) The Medical College Building on Jefferson Street housed Nutting’s work during his final year at SUI.

After 40 years of having his dreams kicked around, in 1926 – one year before Professor Nutting died – his Zoology Department was moved completely out of the Hall of Natural Science and into the recently-vacated Medical College Building – located down the street from Science Hall on Jefferson Street (see above).

While things were constantly changing at SUI, so did Charles Nutting’s personal life. Lizzie, his wife, passed away in 1891 – 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, Caroline, so much that it was her permission he sought when he wished marry his second wife – Mary Eloise Willis.

1927-nuttingcoverA
(C-0039Here’s a rare personal letter from C.C. Nutting – mailed from his SUI office in Iowa City on January 3, 1927. 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 January 4, and in North Erie on Jan. 5, just eighteen days before Nutting died on January 23, 1927 in Iowa City.

C. C. Nutting died January 23, 1927 at his home in Iowa City. He had been with the SUI for forty-one years, and while it is true that he did suffer health problems – including depression – during the last years of his life, he staunchly ignored them and continued to go about his daily life never making reference to them. Nutting and his immediate family are buried at Oakland Cemetery in Iowa City.

Sadly, it was only after C.C. Nutting’s death that his dream of a permanent museum was finally fulfilled. Eventually, the Hall of Natural Science – which was renamed Macbride Hall in 1934 – became the home for SUI’s 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. 

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 – even to the President of the University. One biographer states…

C.C. Nutting 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.

One of the world’s few remaining Cycloramas – created by Nutting and his team – this three-dimensional display – in Macbride Hall – opened in 1914 and depicts the endangered bird haven – Laysan Island – in its heyday. Click here to visit the University of Iowa website.

Thank you, Professor Nutting. While your name is not as familiar today as your two peers – Macbride and Calvin – we salute you for your forty-one years of service to SUI. Godspeed!


Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.

Charles Cleveland Nutting, Cynthia Simpson, Department of Earth & Environmental Sciences, The University of Iowa

Charles Cleveland Nutting, Wikipedia

History, University of Iowa Museum of Natural History, University of Iowa

At the UI Museum of Natural History, a Paradise Not Yet Lost, Jack Tamisiea, Iowa Magazine, May 31, 2022

Charles Cleveland Nutting, Find-A-Grave


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