Thornton Burgess and The Bradford Washburn Award


Hi, I've taken a considerable break from this blog for diverse reasons, some more valid than others, but never lost my original intention of writing consistently about 1) the research and writing that went into Nature's Ambassador: The Legacy of Thornton W. Burgess, a 320-page biography published in 2013; 2) reflections on the art and craft of writing which I've accumulated in 30 years of professional writing and college-level teaching; and 3) life as it finds me. I look forward to any questions and comments from readers who share my endless love and appreciation for the written word. Let's talk.

On October 23, 2014 the Boston Museum of Science celebrates the 50thanniversary of the prestigious H. Bradford Washburn, Jr. Award which honors its longtime director, a mountaineer, cartographer, photographer and author. Recipients have included Jacques-Yves Cousteau, Dr. Jane Goodall, Dr. Isaac Asimov, Dr. Mary D. Leakey, Stephen Jay Gould, and Walter Cronkite.

One particular aspect of the Bradford Washburn Award’s history deserves a footnote.

Around 1964 a grateful trustee had proposed to acknowledge Washburn’s distinguished accomplishments and service with an award for individual contributions to science and science literacy. The selection committee was comprised of Richard Borden, Mass Audubon Society president; Erwin Canham, Christian Science Monitor editor-in-chief; and Bradford Washburn. They selected Dr. Melville Bell Grosvenor, grandson of Alexander Graham Bell, as the first recipient.

But Washburn realized that among proposed recipients were people who had uniquely inspired his own dedication to science and nature. He requested that a personal award be given, that year only, to three people: Gilbert Grosvenor, founder and president of the National Geographic Society; Kirtley Mather, Harvard geology professor; and naturalist and children’s author Thornton W. Burgess who was also a member of the Museum of Science board of trustees.

In researching Burgess’ biography Nature’s Ambassador, I came across touching personal correspondence regarding that special award. Burgess was 90 years old and recovering from a stroke in a Hampden, Massachusetts nursing home when Bradford Washburn informed him of the award that would be presented at the organization’s annual meeting: “Your wonderful books had a tremendous effect on my love of nature as a youngster,” Bradford wrote. “I read them avidly as the first English prose I ever tackled alone... I don’t need to tell you what a tremendous debt of gratitude I owe you for all that you have done for me and millions of other youngsters.”

Although Burgess’ failing health prevented him from attending the 1964 presentation in Boston, Brad Washburn and his wife Barbara hand-delivered the gold medal award to him at the Mary Lyon Nursing Home. According to manager Louis Levine, Thornton Burgess had whispered to him: “This is the highlight of my career.”

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