During its centennial celebrations in 2008, the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology (MVZ) at the University of California, Berkeley paid homage to its founding director, Joseph Grinnell. Recognized as a leading scientific institution, the MVZ managed to grow throughout the twentieth century, a period often characterized by the decline of natural history. To understand how and why research flourished at the MVZ, this paper looks closely at Grinnell's undergraduate course, the Natural History of the Vertebrates (NHV). Taught by MVZ affiliates since 1914, the NHV offers an important window on Grinnell's approach and legacy. This paper argues that the NHV contributed to the MVZ's long-term success by acting as, first, a gateway to natural history; second, a vector for the MVZ's research programme; and third, a shared faculty responsibility. Grinnell's significance in the history of science is understated, in part because his writing style de-emphasized the importance of his theoretical contributions, including his development of the niche concept, his emphasis on population thinking and geographic isolation in studies of evolution, and his effort to integrate speciation questions and genetics. Studying the NHV highlights these contributions because Grinnell freely communicated his ideas to his students. An analysis of Grinnell's course material shows that his theoretical and methodological approach pre-dated the evolutionary synthesis and inspired natural-history research throughout the past century.