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James Orton and The Last Crusade

Orton at Vassar in 1870. Image copyright McCord Museum.

He may not have walked the ivy-covered halls of academia wearing a fedora or carrying a bullwhip, but that didn't stop James H. Orton from postumusly earning the title "Vassar’s Indiana Jones."

A natural-born poet struck by a fascination with science at an early age, Orton had a childhood that foretold greatness. When boys his age would be out playing, Orton would conduct experiments, search for minerals, and seek ways to feed his insatiable curiosity and intelligence. At 17, he devised a scheme for adapting the “Drummond light” for use in lighthouses, which the Scientific American hailed as “an ingenious method.”

Orton brought his wealth of knowledge—spanning the wonders of hard science to the mysteries of theology—to Vassar in 1869, where he served as the chairman and curator of Vassar’s Department of Natural History until his tragic death in 1877. During his time here, Orton expanded the museum’s collection to a remarkable 10,000 artifacts, while writing on topics such as the education of women and theories of evolution. Orton was a man generations ahead of his time.

In 1867, the Williams College Lyceum of Natural History selected Orton to lead an expedition to South America and his thirst for knowledge prompted him to return in 1873. Those expeditions spawned noteworthy contributions to the scientific community, including the highly-acclaimed travelogue The Andes and the Amazon (which he dedicated to Charles Darwin, a fellow naturalist and pen-pal), and a variety of significant specimens displayed in institutions across the United States.

Many of the specimens he found on his expeditions are housed in Olmsted display cases, including the now-endangered Tarsius, a small primate.

In 1877, the man hailed as “a scholar in the truest sense of the word” enthusiastically embarked on his third expedition to South America. Mid-voyage, Orton’s escorts mutinied, and in a downward spiral of mysterious events, he was struck on the head. Days later, hemorrhaging in the unfavorable weather of an unfamiliar land, Orton died as dramatically as he had lived—a hero.

–Nana T. Baffour-Awuah ’14