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Skull collection a gift from appreciative alumnus, Dr. Lou Herrin

Duane Bonifer
08/14/2018
MONMOUTH, Ill. – Visitors to the Chism Biology Wing in Monmouth’s Center for Science and Business can see the results of more than a quarter century of Dr. Lou Herrin’s passion. Arranged and labeled in a six-foot wide glass case are the skulls of more than five dozen creatures.

Herrin, a 1969 Monmouth graduate, donated the skulls in 1996 after collecting them from 1963 until the early 1990s.

Herrin enjoyed a 35-year career as a veterinarian in Bloomington, Ill., where he took care of domestic cats and dogs for “about 2,000 families.” In his spare time, he acquired the skulls of both ordinary and exotic creatures.
His collection of skulls began with a rodent in 1963. That’s when his mother, Janet, gave him a dead squirrel.

“She knew I was interested in biology,” Herrin said during a visit to campus to review and clean the skulls he donated. “She came out of a church service, and a squirrel had fallen out of a tree and died. So she scooped it up in her church program and brought it home to me. That’s how it started.”

Herrin majored in biology at Monmouth, but he might not have even graduated from the College had it not been for the generosity of biology professor David Allison, who became one of his mentors.

“I was a rather poorly motivated freshman and sophomore and my grades reflected that. Except I liked biology,” Herrin said. “One day I was looking at some specimens (in McMichael Academic Hall) and I felt somebody put their hand on my shoulder. I turned around and it was Dr. Allison. He said, ‘Lou, you’re really good at biology. I’m going to go on sabbatical next year and go to Costa Rica for six months to study biology. I want you to go with me.’

“My whole life turned around because of that trip. After that, I got straight A’s, and I really changed as a student. I would never have been anything without that guy.”

Along with help from professors John Ketterer, Ben Cooksey, Robert Buchholz and Milton Bowman, Herrin said that he was not only ready to graduate from Monmouth but prepared to succeed at veterinary school at the University of Illinois.

“Thanks to Monmouth and the education I received here, I was immediately operating in the top quarter of my veterinary class,” he said. “My professors at Monmouth taught me how to think and how to reason things out.”

Herrin continued to collect skulls while he was a Monmouth student, often stopping in rather odd places to recover a specimen that would broaden his collection. On the way back from seeing the pop band Paul Revere and the Raiders perform in Peoria with three other Monmouth students, Herrin pressed classmate Lee McGaan to stop his car when he spotted a dead skunk in the road.

“I got out, scooped it up and threw it in the trunk,” he said. “They never forgave me for that, and I think it took Lee quite some time to get the smell out of his trunk.”

Herrin collected the skulls for the same reason he donated them to his alma mater—they are a great way for students to learn about anteaters, bats, marsupials, shrews, primitive monkeys and other animals.

“You can read about all of these things, but to see them is just amazing,” he said. “No matter what skull you look at, it has all the same parts. That was a really, really interesting thing for me to grasp—the changes and adaptations and how they all fit in.”

As people learned that he collected animal skulls, Herrin would receive calls from people who had a specimen to add to his collection. Once, a research biologist sent him through the U.S. Mail the head of a fur seal from the Pribilof Islands, secured in a gallon of formaldehyde.

But Herrin’s wildest acquisition is also the star of his collection, the head of a baboon. Known as Mike the Baboon, the primate lived out his life in the Peoria Zoo. When it died, its corpse had to be taken to the Illinois Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory before Herrin could claim it for his collection. The problem was that Mike had died on a Saturday, and the diagnostic lab wasn’t open until Monday.

“So we put it in the walk-in freezer on a shelf, never thinking that it was rather odd we put it in the sitting position,” Herrin said. “Monday morning comes, and it’s frozen solid. So I took it out and put it in the passenger seat of my Triumph. … I was almost out of gas, so I pulled into the gas station and the attendant came out. Here’s this baboon sitting in my passenger seat. Pretty soon I hear like a waterfall, and I turn around and gas is pouring everywhere. And this poor attendant is staring at my ugly girlfriend or whatever he thought it was.”