In 1905, Columbia University established an honorary public lectureship to focus on timely topics in biology and to be given biannually by a learned scientist of high stature. At its inception, the Jesup Lectureship was a joint venture between the American Museum and Columbia. In the 1930s the Columbia University Press took an interest in the Lectureship; several notable books summarizing the topics covered in lectures resulted from this collaboration. Currently the Jesup Lectures are managed by a committee in the Department of Biological Sciences and are presented every two years in a series of three closely spaced lectures. Although we welcome a book from the lecturer, this is not absolutely essential, especially as many of our honored lecturers are very active scientists en route. A list of the Jesup Lecturers (see below) reveals a gap of nineteen years which began at the time of the Great War. Jesup Lecturers include many of the most reknown biologists of the twentieth century; ten of these lecturers have thusfar received Nobel Prizes.
In the case of many honorary lectureships, the person after whom the lectureship was named are long forgotten. We would not want this to happen in this case because Morris Ketchum Jesup was a truly remarkable person who performed tremendous services for Columbia University, the American Museum and humanity at large. Jesup was one of the 19th century’s quintessential self-made men. Born in 1830 to a wealthy family, he was only seven years old when a financial panic wiped out the family fortune. Shortly afterwards, his father died leaving his mother destitute with eight children to support. Jesup would see all his siblings but one die of tuberculosis. He left school in the sixth grade to help support his family. At age 21 he took his first job in the financial world. Eventually, he set up his own business. By the time he was 39, he had amassed a vast fortune in the banking and railroad business.
In 1869 he became one of the American Museum’s original incorporators. At age 51 he was elected President of the Museum which led him to retire from business activities so that he could devote himself to museum activities full-time. His sixth-grade education never hindered his understanding of science, and may in fact have been an asset. As one scientist wrote, "He began his duties untrammeled by tradition."
In search of new knowledge and tangible articles that could become a part of the museum’s collection, Jesup subsidized hundreds of expeditions. His expeditions led to the discovery of the North Pole, exploration of unmapped areas of Siberia, Outer Mongolia, the Gobi desert and the jungles of the Congo.
In 1905 Jesup retired as Director of the Museum. In the same year President of Columbia, Nicholas Murray Butler, and the Columbia Trustees launched the Jesup lectures as an expression of their gratitude for the tremendous services Jesup had performed for the Museum and the University.