Tale of the First Life-Size Blue Whale’s Cast

Lucas [top whale] and Scollick [third from left] preparing the cast of the blue whale’s body, July 1903.
Image courtesy of the National Museum of Natural History

In May 1903 the chief osteologist Frederic A. Lucas with two assistants, William Palmer (chief Taxidermist) and J. W. Scollick (osteological preparatory), were dispatched by Dr. Frederic W. True, Head Curator of Biology at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. and scientific authority on cetaceans and whales, to the Cabot Steam Whaling Company’s station, Balena on Hermitage Bay in Newfoudland to obtain the world’s first full cast of a Blue Whale.
True argued that a full-scale cast of the largest animal in existence should be the centerpiece of the Smithsonian’s contribution to the American display at St. Louis Plans were immediately made the necessary skeleton, measurements and plaster mould from Newfoundland. On 7 october 1902 True notified at Secretary of the Smithsonian that the time had arrived and it was necessary to begin preparation for participation in the St. Loui Exposition. True made arrangements through his Newfoundland connection for his principal assistant at the Smithsonian, Dr. Frederic Augustus Lucas ‘to secure the cast and skeleton of a fully grown blue or sulphur-bottom whale.
In the Spring of 1903, Lucas (51 years old) William Palmer, J. W. Stollick and all members of the Museum staff arrived at Balena whaling station on Newfoundland south coast to stay nearly two months and come back ‘entirely successful, returning with a perfect skeleton of a specimen measuring about 24 meters, with the moulds of exterior from which the entire animals will be cast. Lucas feel a very big responsibility because the worst part of this work was the fear of a failure, the worry lest to get a not good big whale and were ansioux days when no sulphur-bottom were taken or even seen.
On 12 July 1903 the whaling station at Hermitage Bay received word that one of their steamers had hauled in a blue whale of 70 tons of weight. Lucas instructed the capitain to tow the body into shoal water, about 3 meters deep, just as the ebb tide set in, once the whale was in position, tail toward the bench and the head seaward, resting on its left side Lucas, Palmer and Sollick rowed out in a dingy and began the process of preparing the moulding. According to the innovative method of Lucas, the plaster mould had to be accomplished keeping the whale soaking on the bank, in this way the decomposition is slowed. For the next ten hours the Museum workers making the mould, using buckets of Plaster of Paris with burlap and excelsior.

Palmer [right], Scollick [left], and Lucas [middle], plastering the whale’s head.
Image courtesy of the National Museum of Natural History

Scollick mixing plaster while the other men cast the whale’s head, up on the beach.

The mould was done in some big sections, working down towards the median line of the stomach. Because the whale flesh decomposes rapidly, the exhausted group had to continue working until the entire cast was complete. They left the head, which decomposes more slowly than the rest of  the body, until last. For the next several days the station workmen helped strip fat from the blubber, every part of the whale’s skeleton even the smallest and most minute bones would be collected and treated with care.
The expedition returned to Washington D.C. on. 22 July with the entire mould in several large pieces and with the full skeleton.
Lucas oversaw the modeling of specimen which he had to have completed in time for the St. Louis Exposition the following year. It took eight months to complete the enormous replica in papier maché.
Also, the F.C. Richardson of the Milwaukee Paper Mache Works had been contacted but at last it was the Ward’s Natural Science Establishment to do the work of assembling the skeleton of the sulphur-bottom including skull and jaws, repair broken bones and make the cast.
The cast was made in papier maché and the mould was covered using old paper money pulp from the U.S. Treasury. When the mould was removed the cast was painted by Palmer. In early March 1904 the big whale cast was disassembled into sections and shipped by rail to St. Louis.

Workers in the shed in the South Yard behind the Smithsonian building preparing the cast of the blue whale for the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, 1903

Workers in the shed in the South Yard behind the Smithsonian building making the wood frame for the cast of the body of the blue whale for the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, 1903.

Workers prepare the giant blue whale cast for presentation at the St. Louis World’s Fair, 1904.
Image courtesy of the National Museum of Natural History

The St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904 celebrated the centennial of the purchase Louisiana. The building was considered one of the most impressive at the fair, the immense blue whale cast hung from the rafters and was described ‘as the most striking objects, showing the natural appearance of this greatest of all living creatures’.

A view of the National Museum exhibit with the blue whale cast in the U.S. Government pavilion of the St. Louis World’s Fair, 1904.

The world’s first full cast of a whale, part of the Smithsonian’s display at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, 1904.
Image courtesy of the National Museum of Natural History

When the blue whale cast returned from St. Louis in 1905 it was suspended from the roof trusses of the South Hall in the Art and Industries Building. After the new U.S. National Museum opened in 1910 it was moved across the Mall, mounted on a pedestal, and placed at the center of the Hall of Marine Life. For fifty years the 24 meters cast of the blue whale enchanted visitors to the museum.

Excerpt from:
Mary Anne Andrei. Nature’s Mirror: The Founding of America’s National History Museums and the Early Wildlife Conservation Movement, University of Chicago Press, 2011.
C. W. Sanger, A. B. Dickinson. The Construction and Display of the First Full-Scale Model of a Blue Whale: The Newfoundland Connection, 1985.