Generally it’s a bad thing to be called a “hoarder.” In Dave Nelson’s case, however, his pack rat tendencies are for a good cause—and will soon come to a very good end.

Nelson, an emeritus professor of biochemistry and defacto CALS historian, has been collecting old scientific instruments, books, papers and other scientific artifacts from the UW-Madison and around Wisconsin for the past 45 years. He has amassed a collection that now fills three rooms on campus—two in the Biochemical Sciences Building and one in the Old Dairy Barn. Soon, however, many of these items will be sent to the home of the new Madison Science Museum, a non-profit museum that Nelson helped found and hopes to see open this coming fall.

Dave_Nelson_pic 2
David Nelson with a cast iron Babcock centrifuge and an aluminum one, two of over 100 instruments in his collection.

“The reason I’ve saved my collection all these years is exactly this,” says Nelson. “I want it to be where people can see it and touch it and maybe even use it.”

The museum will occupy the sixth floor of the Madison Area Technical College’s downtown facility, just a stone’s throw from the Madison Children’s Museum, the Wisconsin Veterans Museum and the Wisconsin Historical Museum.

“The museum will pull together in one place much of the exciting science and engineering that’s been done around here in the last century,” says Nelson. “Wisconsin has a wonderful history of research, and it desperately needs to be told.”

When Nelson joined the UW-Madison faculty in 1971, he took over the laboratory space previously occupied by biochemistry professor Marv Johnson. It was the perfect spot.

“Marv had kept all of his old instruments, protecting them so they didn’t get thrown away, so I walked into a lab that was already full of 50-year old instruments,” says Nelson, who hung on to everything—and soon started adding his own pieces to the collection.

“When somebody had an instrument they didn’t need anymore, I grabbed it, and I began to watch for these things at SWAP,” he says. “And then when eBay opened up, I began to get really serious about buying instruments. Usually they’re not very expensive. For instance, a Babcock centrifuge costs maybe $50 or $75, which seems like a good deal for a real piece of history.”

16512054782_14d5014c0e_z 2
Nelson with an early apparatus to separate RNA molecules.

Over the decades, Nelson’s collection grew to fill one room, then two, then a third. It features a lot of turn-of-the-century pieces, including early instruments to measure weight, quantities of light, hemoglobin in blood, and blood glucose levels for diabetics. Highlights include the ultraviolet light that Harry Steenbock used in his experiments with rickets and vitamin D; the analytical balance that Karl Paul Link used in his studies of warfarin; and the light microscope that Joshua Lederberg used in his Nobel Prize-winning work on bacteria.

Now these instruments—and the stories that go along with them—will have the opportunity to be shared with the public at the Madison Science Museum. Exhibits, which will be geared toward middle schoolers, high schoolers and adult learners, will highlight early scientific discoveries. They will also show how those initial findings led to important subsequent discoveries, medical and/or technological advances and commercial applications.

“There are more than 150 biotech spinoffs in the Madison area, and some of them are multi-million dollar businesses. We want to show these accomplishments, too, and really all of the aspects of the state’s science and engineering enterprise,” says Nelson.

Exhibits will rotate, giving museum visitors a reason to come back again and again. One of the first exhibits will explore imaging technologies of all kinds—from microscopes to CAT scans to weather satellites.

Nelson, along with UW-Madison Biotechnology Center outreach director Tom Zinnen and others, spent many years searching for a home for the science museum. Initially the goal was to site the museum on the UW-Madison campus, but Nelson came around to the MATC location after considering the many benefits. There are plenty of parking spaces, bus routes and museum-goers in the area.

Nelson’s goal is to open the museum, which will operate 10 a.m. – 9 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, in time to be a part of this fall’s Wisconsin Science Festival.

While the museum has some funding secured, more is still needed. To encourage emeritus faculty from UW-Madison to donate, Madison Science Museum board member Thomas “Rock” Mackie, an emeritus professor of biomedical engineering, has established a matching grant program that will match 100% of donations from emeritus faculty up to a grand total of $50,000.

For more information about the museum, visit the Madison Science Museum website, download this MSM_two_pager vision document and/or read this article.

On a related note: The newly-formed CALS History Work Group invites all emeritus and active faculty and staff of the college to a meeting on Monday, February 23 to discuss ways that CALS’ rich history can be preserved and celebrated. The meeting will be held at the UW Credit Union (3500 University Avenue) at 2:00 pm on Monday February 23. David Null from UW Archives will talk about ways the Archives can help in this effort.