The UMZM was founded in 1897 upon the arrival of the first Biology professor ever hired at the University of Montana, Dr. Morton Elrod. The oldest modern specimens in the collection were part of Dr. Elrod’s original Ornithology teaching collection dating back to1880.
The museum grew rapidly in the 20th century, mostly at the direction of Zoology professor Dr. Philip L. Wright who took over as UMZM curator in 1939. Dr. Wright contributed specimens to the museum through his active research program, by providing field experiences for UM students, and through his meticulous documentation of bird and mammal biodiversity in Montana. In recognition of his extraordinary dedication to the growth and use of these collections, the museum was dedicated in Dr. Wright's name shortly before he passed away in 1997.