I. A. Lapham, a signature in broad, graceful strokes of black ink, caught my eye as I turned the pages of an old book about Wisconsin agriculture. The name had a familiar ring, so I took time to refresh my memory: Increase A. Lapham, the Wisconsin Historical Society said, was Wisconsin’s first scientist.

The book, Volume X of the Wisconsin Farmer and North-Western Cultivator dated 1858, was one of several I salvaged from the discard bin at Steenbock Library at University of Wisconsin-Madison many years ago. Although the books were badly worn, a few minutes scanning the contents had convinced me that they would provide fascinating reading for anyone interested in agriculture and Wisconsin history. They have ever since. I found it curious that I had not previously noted in the 46 years I have had them that I was reading books once owned by Wisconsin’s first scientist who lived from 1811 to 1875.

Here’s the historical society’s summary of some of his contributions: “He wrote the first book published in Wisconsin, made the first accurate maps of the state, investigated Wisconsin’s effigy mounds, native trees and grasses, climatic patterns and geology, and helped found many of the schools, colleges and other cultural institutions that still enrich the state today.”

Lapham pioneered the field of forest conservation and his studies of weather conditions was instrumental in founding the forerunner of today’s National Weather Service. He published a Geographical and Topographical Description of Wisconsin in 1844, which “proved tremendously popular with immigrants looking for information about their new home. He also drew the first map published in the area,” according to the historical society.

I’m writing this reflection on Wisconsin’s first scientist on the day that the La Crosse Tribune reported that Gov. Scott Walker’s budget has proposed further reductions in the role of science in the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Sen. Tom Tiffany (R-Hazelhurst) said that the measure would better ensure that DNR research benefits sportsmen and avoids further research that takes climate change into account.

Having read that, I couldn’t help but wonder what Wisconsin’s first scientist would think of his state reducing the breadth and scope of its natural resources research — what this man who first understood the significance of researching the effects of weather would think of such a narrow view of the role of research in natural resources management. Lapham, who also served as state geologist, mastered botany, geology, archaeology, limnology, mineralogy, engineering, meteorology, and cartography. The historical society said that Lapham, asked late in life which field of science was his specialty, he replied simply, ‘I am studying Wisconsin.’”

Lapham might have read the following on page 453 of his copy of Wisconsin Farmer in 1858. I share it as a way of looking at the direction of science in Wisconsin:

“Men have found the essential secret of prosperity and greatness—that all progress is the work of experiment ... They have thus curbed and saddled steam, tamed lightning, cast by wooden plows, and in a thousand ways advanced and exalted themselves, physically and mentally, as individuals and nations.”

The Wisconsin Farmer piece added: “In the day of wooden plows (not long since) the great danger was thought to be in going too fast and knowing too much—now the difficulty is to go fast enough and to know enough.”

Wisconsin needs to “know enough” and needs research in the spirit of Wisconsin’s first scientist I.A. Lapham to make that happen. Enough of the wooden plow thinking.

For more on I. A. Lapham, see “Studying Wisconsin: The Life of Increase Lapham” by Paul G. Hayes and Martha Bergland, published in 2014 by Wisconsin Historical Society Press.

Dave Skoloda is an award-winning journalist and former owner and editor of the Onalaska Community Life and Holmen Courier.


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