Nelson, Edward W. (Deceased)
Edward was born in Amoskeag, New Hampshire, on May 8, 1855. The Nelsons lived in Manchester, New Hampshire, until his father joined the Union Army and his mother went to Baltimore to be a nurse. Edward and his brother then went to live with their maternal grandparents in the northern Adirondack Mountains in Franklin County, New York. He attended a one-room rural school, learned to live the hard frontier life and to enjoy the newly discovered, uncultivated land with its wealth of wildlife. His father was killed near the end of the Civil War and the family moved to Chicago, where his mother established a successful dressmaking business and Edward entered school in 1868. Edward enjoyed collecting biological specimens in the big country town and roamed the shores of Lake Michigan. The Chicago fire of 1871 destroyed their home, business, and Edward’s insect collection. Edward attended Cook County Normal School from 1872 to 1875 and made his first collecting trip at the age of 17 to Utah, Nevada, and California, and had the good fortune to meet Henry Henshaw and E. D. Cope. He continued his interest in natural history while teaching in Dalton, Illinois, from 1875 to 1876, but found field explorations more exciting than classroom lectures. He went to the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., but failed to get employment there. Through the help of Henshaw, Baird, and Ridgway, however, he was accepted as a weather observer for assignment in Alaska, and he sailed from San Francisco in April 1877. Although the major objective was to obtain meteorologic observations, secondary objectives were “to obtain all the information possible on the geography, ethology, and zoology of the surrounding region.” Being a careful, thorough, tenacious, and sometime stubborn worker, Edward did all those things! With headquarters in St. Michael and with the assistance of native Eskimos, dog sleds, and kayaks, he explored from 1877 to 1881 areas where Caucasians had not traveled. Many of his biological collections and ethological observations were new to the scientific world. At the conclusion of his explorations in Alaska, Edward returned to Washington, D.C., to prepare his specimens and to write his report. He developed tuberculosis, but enjoyed recovery as he traveled around the city studying birds from a horse and buggy with his colleague Henry Henshaw. But for six years in the late 1880s, Edward had to stay in Arizona, while his mother nursed him back to health. Although he recovered from tuberculosis, he was considered a “one-lunger” and had a heart ailment for the remainder of his life. In 1890 and 1891, Edward accompanied C. Hart Merriam, A. K. Fisher, and V. O. Bailey on the famous Death Valley Expedition, in the newly created Division of Ornithology and Mammalogy of the Bureau of Biological Survey. Edward pioneered into Yosemite Valley and is considered the first person to take a pack train down the Yosemite and Merced Rivers. Edward’s California explorations were followed by extensive trips throughout Mexico with E. A. Goldman from 1892 to 1906. Despite his physical disabilities, he ascended the 12 highest peaks in remote areas and also worked in every state in Mexico and on all coastal islands. Although he lived among the indigenous people, he did not write about them as he had done in Alaska, but wrote extensively about the small mammals of Mexico and Central America. From 1908 to 1930, Edward conducted hardly any field trips, except for administrative purposes and was promoted from chief naturalist, to assistant chief, to eventually becoming the third chief of the Bureau of Biological Survey. During this period he was instrumental in the negotiations for the Migratory Bird Conservation Act, Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act, and the Alaska Game Law, all of which gave better protection for migratory birds. Edward received an honorary MA degree from Yale and an honorary DSc degree from George Washington University, both in 1920. Edward published over 200 articles on many subjects and was a member of many scientific organizations, including being president of the American Ornithologists’ Union, the Biological Society of Washington, and the American Society of Mammalogists. He had numerous species and sub-species that were named for him. Edward was elected to membership in the Washington Biologists’ Field Club in 1904. He was awarded an honorary membership in 1929. Edward never married and devoted his whole life to science as an observer, collector, and recorder. He died on May 19, 1934.