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Thomas Nutall – Brief life of a pioneering naturalist: 1786-1859

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Thomas Nutall – Brief life of a pioneering naturalist: 1786-1859


by John Nelson Harvard Magazine May-June 2015

In 1808, a day after landing in Philadelphia, Yorkshireman Thomas Nuttall found a common greenbrier, a plant new to him. The apprentice printer and aspiring naturalist took it to Benjamin Smith Barton of the University of Pennsylvania, who—struck by this fervor for botany—became Nuttall’s mentor, and in 1810 sent him on a major collecting expedition: to the Great Lakes, northwest to Winnipeg, and down the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. Nuttall, realizing he’d be welcome neither to the British in Canada nor the Plains Indians, eventually joined one of John Jacob Astor’s fur-trading parties. In prairies and woodlands he found plants new to science and collected species that had been discovered, but lost in transit, by the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Washington Irving’s historical account Astoria describes him as a “zealous botanist…groping and stumbling along a wilderness of sweets, forgetful of everything but his immediate pursuit.” In other first-hand stories, his use of his rifle to store seeds illustrates his obliviousness to peril in his single-minded quest to further science…. In 1832 he published a pioneering guide: a two-volume Manual of the Ornithology of the United States and Canada. Despite some errors, it was accurate enough that readers often assumed he was a trained ornithologist.
Birds, he wrote, “play around us like fairy spirits”; he believed them capable of conjugal fidelity, education, and even “reflection.” His call to end their “wanton destruction” has been echoed by American conservationists ever since
. …In Philadelphia he learned that an uncle had left him an estate in England, provided he stay there nine months each year. He lived out his days in Lancashire, but wrote, “I prefer the wilds of America a thousand times over” and returned once, for six months in 1847-48. The preeminent naturalist of his adopted country remained proud of the work he’d done “not in the closet but in the field.” That work lives on through the common and scientific names of Western shrubs and trees like the Pacific dogwood (Cornus nuttallii), 44 marine genera and species, and three birds, including Nuttall’s woodpecker. And the first U.S. ornithological society, founded in 1873, bears his name. Members of the Nuttall Ornithological Club have included Theodore Roosevelt, Ernst Mayr, and Roger Tory Peterson. “Nuttall” still publishes ornithological research, building on its namesake’s groundwork, and meets monthly for lectures at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology.

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