Tibet explorer's Philly family to donate $3M to Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel

Brooke Dolan II traveled 1,500 miles over Himalayan mountains and steppe by caravan and 1,700 miles by river to explore China and Tibet in a 1930s expedition. He was granted an audience 10 years later with the Dalai Lama on another trip.

Some of his expeditions were funded by the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia.

Now, as part of that legacy, his Philadelphia-area relatives will donate $3 million to the institution, since renamed the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, to fund research into the Delaware River watershed, which provides drinking water to 15 million people.

The Academy announced this week that the Dolan family will start by contributing $50,000 per year, an amount the Academy will match through 2027. At that point, the family will fund the final $2.5 million of the endowment, to be known as the Dolan Fund for Innovative Water Research. The fund is designed to “encourage innovative research on water ecology” and pay for a postdoctoral fellowship.

The Delaware River runs through New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware. The watershed is a network of waterways, including the Schuylkill, Cooper, Rancocas, and other rivers and streams that drain into it.

David Velinsky, a vice president at the Academy and head of Drexel’s Department of Biodiversity, Earth & Environmental Science, said it’s important that scientists study the watershed and educate people about it because it is so vital to the region. Initially, the money will go toward hiring a staffer with a science background who can conduct research and also act as a “communicator.” The goal, Velinsky said, is for the new hire to reach out to landowners, farmers, and others whose work and properties affect the watershed.

Education topics might include how nutrients pollute waterways, how to restore habitats, and ways to protect land around streams that feed the Delaware.

The Dolan family came to prominence in the local scientific community through Brooke Dolan. Said to be independently wealthy, Dolan studied zoology at Princeton and Harvard. He began exploring the world in his early 20s. In 1931, he traveled Sichuan, other parts of China, and Tibet on an expedition he organized for the Academy. He launched a second, similar expedition in 1934 to collect specimens, bringing back 310 mammals, 2,615 birds, and 2,600 mollusks, and made return trips later.

His specimens are still displayed in dioramas at the Academy.

Dolan died abroad in 1945, but his family’s connections to the Academy continued. In the 1950s, his nephew, Thomas Dolan IV, who still lives in Lafayette Hill, worked as an aquatic entomologist for the Academy under Ruth Patrick. The Academy’s Patrick Center for Environmental Research is named after her.

Camera icon Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University
Thomas Dolan IV of Lafayette Hill with his wife, who is since deceased.

“When the family gathered together to talk about what we wanted to do for the Academy, we decided that water will be the enduring issue facing our country and the world,” said Thomas Dolan.

Also contributing to the fund: Brooke Dolan (Brooke Dolan II’s grandnephew) of Chester Springs; Thomas Dolan V of Oakland, Calif.; and Sarah Dolan Price and Margaret Chew Dolan, both of Philadelphia.