Though John Whipple Potter Jenks was a self-proclaimed naturalist, he devoted much of his life to the field of education. Before returning to his Alma Mater, Jenks made a career as a teacher and principal. Even while pursuing his dream to create a natural history museum at Brown, Jenks acted as professor of Agricultural Zoology and gave taxidermy lessons to interested students.
It was in this capacity that Jenks made the acquaintance of a seventeen-year-old Dallas Lore Sharp. Professor Jenks had donated a large selection of birds and animals, shells and specimens, to the South Jersey Institute where an eager and enthusiastic Sharp was charged with unpacking the collection. As an avid fan of the great naturalists of the day, Sharp was in awe of Jenks. Recollecting the moment of their meeting later in life, Sharp wrote, “If anything of the heroic was lacking in Jenks’ appearance, it was more than made up by that shuffle caused by arsenical poisoning. Arsenic in his very bones! A martyr to science!”
Upon working with Dallas for several hours, Jenks exclaimed, “You ought to have a lesson in skinning and mounting! Run out into the grove and get me a bird!” Sharp trapped a cuckoo and brought it back to Jenks, remarking, “This is the only bad bird I could find.” But Professor Jenks protested, “No, no, not a bad bird, but a very useful one, and I shall prove it when I cut open the gizzard and show you how stuck full it is of caterpillar hairs.” Meanwhile, Jenks deftly cut into the bird, removed the gizzard, and turned it inside out to display the lining stuffed with thousands of caterpillar hairs.
According to Sharp, “Only a wizard could have foretold that mystery, only x-ray eyes have seen through that body wall and beheld the plush-like coating of woolly-bear caterpillar hairs. So that is what it is to be a naturalist, a scientist – to know the cuckoo’s languid shape, its dreamy call, and the bird’s very place in the scheme of creation. Wisdom, indeed, hidden from ordinary mortals.” Sharp cites this lesson as the reason he applied to Brown, where he would live in Jenks’ office and workshop in the museum.