Thorne Deuel, museum director

Illinois State Museum, Springfield (

Thorne Deuel, director of the Illinois State Museum for nearly 25 years, literally made it the institution it is today.

Deuel (1890-1984) was a research associate at the University of Chicago, specializing in anthropology and archaeology related to Native Americans in the Mississippi Valley, when Gov. Henry Horner recommended him in 1937 to head the state museum. Deuel succeeded Arthur Coggeshall, who had resigned to become director of the Huntington Museum in California.

Deuel, educated at West Point Military Academy, Columbia University and the University of Chicago, had been a military aviator in World War I, serving in Mexico. He retired from the Army with the rank of major and then spent a brief period doing exhibitions as a “flying circus” pilot.

Thorne Deuel, 1962 (Courtesy State Journal-Register)

Deuel later headed the University of Chicago’s archaeological surveys in the Mississippi valley and on the Atlantic coast and was in charge of the university’s summer field explorations. Among other research, Deuel took part in some of the earliest scientific studies of the area near Dickson Mounds, the Native American burial site in Fulton County, and co-wrote Rediscovering Illinois: Archaeological Explorations in and around Fulton County, published in 1937. (Deuel’s co-author, Fay-Cooper Cole, had been a witness for the defense in the famous “Scopes monkey trial” in Tennessee in 1925.)

When appointed, Deuel said, he intended “to make the museum a scientific center.”

“I believe changes can be made which will make the museum of greater value to residents of the state,” he said.

One of Deuel’s first steps was to start a new publication called The Living Museum and hire an editor, Virginia Eifert, a self-taught naturalist, author and illustrator. The museum didn’t have money for printing or even a position or salary for an editor. Eifert’s first “subscribers” were 1,000 names she picked out of the Springfield telephone directory.

The first edition of The Living Museum came out in May 1939; it was a four-page leaflet on Illinois birds, beasts, and blossoms that appeared in mimeographed form, with the contents and illustrations all from the editor’s pen. It was an immediate success, and The Living Museum continued to be published until 2015.

Under Deuel’s leadership, the Illinois State Museum also started an herbarium, art shows, miniature dioramas, lecture series, and guided tours. It even took its show on the road throughout the state with a museumobile, a 36-foot bus that had 22 three-dimensional exhibits.

Deuel was known for careful spending; staff members were told to use both sides of each piece of paper, and museum folklore had it that Deuel went through the wastebaskets to see if people actually did that.

Deuel rejoined the Army in 1942; promoted to lieutenant colonel, he was detailed to western China. Upon his return to the museum in 1945, Deuel took on a new job, in some ways his biggest: pushing for a new museum building.

At the time, the museum was housed on the fifth floor of the Centennial Building (today’s Howlett Building). However, the museum had run out of space, and the Centennial Building also didn’t suit the changing face and philosophy of museum presentation.

Deuel set out to try to persuade lawmakers to approve a purpose-built museum structure. The idea started taking shape in the 1950s, and in 1959, Governor William Stratton’s budget finally included $2.6 million for a new museum. Construction started in 1961, and the new building was dedicated in 1963. (The cost actually came in lower than budgeted, $2.1 million.)

Deuel retired, after 25 years with the museum, the year before the new building opened. His accomplishments included new exhibits, a staff that had grown to 45 – when he started, the museum had six employees – and the new museum. He also helped start the Illinois State Museum Society.

The auditorium in the museum building Thorne Deuel saw to completion, at 502 S. Spring St. in Springfield, is named after him. Deuel is buried at Oak Ridge Cemetery.

Capt. William Townsley Deuel

The Deuel family plot at Oak Ridge contains the graves of Thorne Deuel, his wife Nora Quain Deuel (1893-1975), and one of their two sons, Thorne Deuel III (1934-2019). It also includes a memorial stone for Thorne and Nora’s other son, U.S. Army Capt. William Townsley Deuel (1938-1966), who is buried at West Point Military Academy.

William Townsley Deuel, 1961 (Howitzer, annual of the U.S. Military Academy, West Point)

After graduation from Springfield High School, William Deuel, following in his father’s footsteps, went to West Point. He served in Korea and in 1966 volunteered for duty in Vietnam, where he was an advisor to the Vietnamese Airborne Division.

Here is part of a letter the younger Deuel wrote to his wife while he was in Vietnam.

I took an oath to defend the Constitution at the price of my life if necessary. I knew you realized this when you married me. Now on a battlefield and danger is close at hand, the fear of death clouds the mind. Fear is the greatest danger of all. If we are restricted by fear of what others think or of danger to our lives, then we are not carrying out our duty properly. I prefer to stand up and be counted. That’s why I volunteered for this duty. I hope you believe in these things as urgently as I do, without regard for personal fear and danger.

Nine days after he wrote that letter, on Sept. 30, 1966, William Deuel was returning a helicopter from a combat mission near Saigon when the enemy opened fire on his aircraft. He was the only casualty.

Note: This entry is an adaptation of a script written for “Echoes of Yesteryear: A Walk Through Oak Ridge Cemetery” in October 2023. Mary Disseler portrayed Nora Quain Deuel; Cinda Klickna wrote the original script. The annual cemetery walk is sponsored by the Sangamon County Historical Society.    

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