Born on October 27, 1858 in New York City, Roosevelt grew up in a world of wealth and privilege. Young Theodore however was found to be afflicted at a young age with Asthma as well as other illnesses. Because of his health, Roosevelt spent much of his childhood years bed ridden or at least confined to his home. He often slept propped up in bed or slouching in a chair during much of his early years. Despite his illnesses, he was hyperactive and often mischievous.
During severe bout of asthma attacks, his family would feed him strong coffee, thought in the day to be a proper treatment. His father would also would take him by carriage out of the city, so he could get fresh air. It was here that TR developed a love of nature. Some suggest this was partially psychological, as it gave him a chance to be alone with his father and also was the place where he could breath freely.
The times that young “Teedie” was healthy, he would explore the woods and trails and observe bugs, birds and animals. His lifelong interest in zoology was formed at age seven upon seeing a dead seal at a local market. After obtaining the seal’s head, the young Roosevelt and two of his cousins formed what they called the “Roosevelt Museum of Natural History”. Learning the rudiments of taxidermy from John Bell, (a famous taxidermist and colleague of wildlife artist John James Audubon) he filled his makeshift museum with animals that he killed or caught, studied, and prepared for display. At age nine, he codified his observation of insects with a paper titled “The Natural History of Insects”. At age 12, he donated some of them – a dozen mice, a bat, a turtle, four birds’ eggs and the skull of a red squirrel – to the American Museum of Natural History, founded by his father. Eleven years later, he presented 622 carefully preserved bird skins to the Smithsonian.
His first experience in a “public” school was when Theodore Roosevelt entered Harvard shortly before his eighteenth birthday. He originally chose to study natural history and had considered a teaching career. From the day of Theodore’s arrival in Cambridge, he failed to fit into the Harvard mold. His clothes were considered too flashy for the conservatives, who also disapproved of his recently grown sideburns. His college rooms were filled with his specimens and mounted animals. Faculty members who taught Roosevelt soon learned to treat him warily. Once Roosevelt asked so many questions during a natural history lecture that the professor exclaimed, “Now look here, Roosevelt, let me talk, I’m running this course!”
In 1878, Theodore’s world collapsed. His father and mentor, Theodore Roosevelt Sr., died shortly after being diagnosed with stomach cancer. The young man was devastated by this loss but resumed his studies. His father’s death changed the direction of Theodore’s life. When he returned to Harvard in the fall of 1878, he switched his major to history and government. He felt this would be the way for him to honor his father’s memory by pursing a career in public service. Though politics was considered “beneath” wealthy, young gentlemen, Roosevelt saw it as an opportunity to change laws for the betterment of society. He later wrote that his father influenced his life more than any other person and that he was the “greatest man he ever knew.”