The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber


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Shimek, Bohumil
(June 25, 1861–January 30, 1937)

–natural scientist, civil engineer, educator, conservationist, and political activist—was the son of Maria Theresa (Tit) Shimek and Francis Joseph Shimek, "freethinkers" from Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) who emigrated to the United States in 1848 and settled on a small farm near Shueyville, north of Iowa City. Of eight children born to Frank and Maria, Bohumil was one of only three who survived to adulthood. After his mother died in 1866, his father sold the farm and moved to Iowa City, where he worked as a cobbler. Throughout much of Shimek's childhood and youth, the family lived in poverty. He claimed to have begun earning his own keep at age 11, and he worked his way through college as a collector for botany, taxidermy, and zoology classes at the State University of Iowa (UI). He studied civil engineering at the UI, receiving a C.E. degree in 1883.

    From 1883 to 1885 Shimek worked as a surveyor (often pro bono for Johnson County), and from 1885 to 1888 he taught sciences at Iowa City High School and Iowa City Academy, a college preparatory school. In 1887 he married Anna Elizabeth Konvalinka, and over the years the couple had five children. From 1888 to 1890 Shimek taught zoology at the University of Nebraska. Although he had no formal training in zoology, Shimek had picked up knowledge about the natural sciences from his father, a florist in his native country, and from his own specimen collecting. In 1890 the Shimeks returned to Iowa City when he received an appointment as instructor of botany at the UI. He taught botany from 1890 to 1931, serving as chair of the department from 1914 to 1919. Along the way, he took his graduate degree. Inasmuch as he could not be instructor and student in the same department at the same time, he earned his M.S. in civil engineering (1902). In 1895 he became curator of the herbarium, a post he held until his death in 1937. Fluent in Czech, he went to Czechoslovakia in 1914 as an exchange professor at Charles University in Prague, which also awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1919. After Anna died in 1922, Shimek married Marjorie Meerdink in 1924. No children were born of this union.

    Shimek's interest in the natural sciences was both broad and deep. He conducted scientific fieldwork throughout the Midwest, Southeast, and Southwest as well as in Nicaragua. His personal research collections included 2.4 million shell specimens, which, following his instructions, were sold to the Smithsonian Institution after he died. Behind the Shimek home in Iowa City (on the National Register of Historic Places) stands a concrete block building he erected to hold his own collections of native and exotic flora. He served as president of the Iowa Academy of Science in 1904-1905, assisted the Iowa State Geological Survey from 1907 to 1929, and from time to time served as director of Iowa Lakeside Laboratory at Lake Okoboji. He was a charter member of the Iowa Park and Forestry Association as well as its successor, the Iowa Conservation Association. In 1919, along with Louis Pammel, Thomas Macbride, and others, he helped to organize the American School of Wildlife Protection, an annual summer field school at McGregor Heights that thrived until World War II. He also was active in the Izaak Walton League, but in 1927, while he was president of the Iowa Ikes, he broke with the organization over wildlife resource issues along the Mississippi River and helped to form the rival Will H. Dilg League. Among Shimek's wide-ranging interests, he is most remembered for his study of loess fossils and plant ecology. Although he never finished an intended book on the plant geography of Iowa, Shimek published more than 200 notes and articles on scientific topics and conservation issues.

    During his lifetime, Shimek was equally well known for his support of public education and his work on behalf of the Czech nationalist movement. He was active in many cultural, fraternal, and civic organizations, serving multiple terms as an Iowa City alderman as well as on the boards of the Iowa City Public Library and Iowa City schools. During World War I, he traveled throughout the United States giving more than 200 public addresses on behalf of Czech freedom. It has been said that he was the "most distinguished, best known and most influential Czech in America [ from] 1910 to 1920."

    Shimek State Forest in southeast Iowa was named in his honor. Two Iowa City schools also werenamed for him, and the library at Iowa Lakeside Laboratory bears his name.
Sources Special Collections, University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City, holds a small collection of Shimek's papers, including "Notes for a Biography of Bohumil Shimek," compiled by botanist Henry S. Conard in 1945– 1946 but never published. The University of Iowa Paleontology Repository holds a collection of Shimek's field photographs. The Smithsonian Institution Archives holds his shell collection and related correspondence as well as field notes, diaries, photographs, and a variety of other materials documenting his scientific explorations. Walter Loehwing's Bohumil Shimek (1947) is a brief biography.
Contributor: Rebecca Conard