Wilmer Tanner was almost 102 years old when he quietly passed away last week, leaving behind a long legacy at BYU.
Tanner first came to BYU as an undergraduate student, graduating with a BA in 1936. He went on to get his master’s degree, writing his thesis on snakes in Utah before getting his Ph.D. after World War II. Tanner became a part of the BYU faculty in 1950 teaching zoology and entomology as an associate professor. But this professor was not just teaching. Tanner worked as a curator for BYU’s life sciences museum from 1972-1978. He felt that the museum could be improved, and developed the idea of an entirely new museum, the one known today as the Monte L. Bean Life Sciences Museum.
“There would be no Bean Museum if it were not for Tanner,” said Larry St. Clair, current director of the Monte L. Bean Life Sciences Museum.
Tanner became good friends with Bean. Through his opportunity to get to know and build a personal relationship with Bean, Tanner worked to get Bean to donate not only his collection of life-size animal trophies, but also donate the money necessary to build the museum.
“Dad had the vision for the museum,” said David Tanner, son of Wilmer Tanner. “He developed a world-class museum.”
After Bean agreed to donate the collection and build the museum, plans were put in place and the construction of the new life sciences museum was completed in the middle of the 1970s. In 1978, Wilmer Tanner became the first official director of the museum.
Tanner continued his remarkable work by putting together many endowments for the museum. He asked people to donate money so the museum could be sustained, and the cost for admission free. Today, students, faculty and those in the local community can visit the museum free of charge.
After retiring as the director of the museum, Tanner continued his work and the directors of the museum asked him for advice on how to run the museum more effectively.
“He had an influence with all of the directors after him,” his son said. “They were always seeking his input. It is hard to find someone who has 50 years worth of experience with the museum.”
He has also published more than 130 scientific articles from the research he had done on life sciences. Tanner also continued to work as a curator in the Bean Museum for many years in the reptile and amphibian collection.
“Up until six months ago, he was in the museum one to three times a week working,” St. Clair said.
Tanner wrote a five-part series on his life history and his involvement with BYU and the museum. Four volumes have been published and the fifth will be completed in the next few months.
“The university and the museum were the passion of his life,” St. Clair said. “He was a remarkable man and an active supporter and participant until the moment he died.”