Museum Classroom Honors 'Grand Old Man of Science'

The Register Guard (Eugene, OR), March 5, 2006 | Go to article overview

Museum Classroom Honors 'Grand Old Man of Science'


Byline: Mark Baker The Register-Guard

CORRECTION (ran 3/16/05): What is now Deady Hall was the only building on campus - and known simply as "The University" - when the University of Oregon opened in 1876. It was not named "Deady" until 1894. A March 5 story on Page G2 on the UO's Thomas Condon exhibit incorrectly said it was one of two buildings.

" ... his determination to accept the findings of geology and Darwin, without giving up his religious beliefs, saved the faith of many and gave both evolution and the methods of science a fair start in Oregon."

- Robert D. Clark, UO president 1968-1975, in his book "The Odyssey of Thomas Condon: Irish Immigrant, Frontier Missionary, Oregon Geologist"

He was not only a man of religion and a man of science, he was a missionary and a family man. A scientist and a teacher. A colleague and a collaborator. A Christian Darwinist and a beloved professor.

Thomas Condon was also known as "Oregon's grand old man of science."

It says all of this right on his classroom walls. A classroom that is a reproduction of the one he occupied on the University of Oregon campus from 1876 to 1905 and that opened at the UO's Museum of Natural and Cultural History on Feb. 24.

The museum decided upon this particular exhibit "because Condon is one of the founding fathers of the university, and he's a fascinating man," Patty Krier, the museum's program director, says of the project that's been a year in the making.

Condon was one of only three professors on staff when the UO first opened for classes in 1876 with 89 students. He taught geology, paleontology, geography, physiology, zoology, botany, rhetoric, ancient history, enthnology, the history of civilization and international law.

A teacher in New York as a young man, the Irish-born Condon (his family moved to the United States when he was 11) entered the seminary and trained as a missionary.

That led the 31-year-old and his wife of two weeks, Cornelia, on a 3 1/2 -month voyage aboard a clipper ship to San Francisco in 1852. The American Home Missionary Society had assigned Condon to its Congregational Church in St. Helens, northwest of Portland.

During the next decade, the family man who had 10 children (four of whom died of illness in childhood) had preaching stints at churches in Forest Grove, Albany and The Dalles.

Five years later, Condon, who as an Irish lad had played in the stone quarry where his father worked, made his first trip to the fossil beds of Eastern Oregon's John Day area.

There, he began to collect and study the fossils that would make him Oregon's first-ever state geologist in 1872, a job that paid $1,000 a year.

An offer from the state's new university in Eugene four years later provided a greater income and gave Condon the chance to return to his teaching roots.

The natural history museum exhibit not only re-creates Condon's classroom, it's also a look back at the UO campus and Eugene in the late 19th century.

"We've taken this opportunity to kind of create what the university was like when he was here," says John Erlandson, the museum's director.

If not for the tireless work and research of the museum's exhibits coordinator, Cindi Budlong, and her assistant on the project, Amy Crain, it never would have happened, Krier says. Nor without the help of UO emeritus professor of paleontology Bill Orr, who is the director of the Condon Collection - which contains some 35,000 fossil specimens - and the expert on the exhibit.

The exhibit includes Condon's pick, compass and part of the fossil collection that is named for him and has grown by some 34,000 specimens since his death in 1907. The Condon Collection includes a 44 million-year-old crab found in the Roseburg area, a 25,000-year-old giant beaver tooth found in the Willamette Valley and a 2 billion-year-old piece of graphite discovered in Canada. …

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