An Historic Gathering


In late July, 2012, I was a few days away from mailing the publisher my finished manuscript for Nature's Ambassador: The Legacy of Thornton W. Burgess (Schiffer, 2013). It was as complete as 4 1/2 years of research and writing could make it.

Still, I remained disappointed that I had never been able to obtain one particular item: a group photo of participants at the remarkable 1931 Matamek Conference on Biological Cycles. This privately funded week-long event (see my previous post) had convened environmental experts from England, Germany, Scotland, Canada and the US in a remote part of Labrador to explore and analyze environmental issues.

Thornton Burgess, a respected naturalist and children's author, had been thrilled to be invited to attend the prestigious gathering as a guest of his friend ornithologist Dr. Alfred Gross, a Bowdoin College biology professor. Although Burgess felt out of place among the famous scientists and tried to be inconspicuous at the conference, most knew who he was and seemed to enjoy his company. I wanted to be able to include in his biography a picture of this historic event, and had so far been unsuccessful.

Just one more try, I decided, and emailed a final, last-minute request to Kathy Petersen at the Bowdoin College Library in Brunswick, Maine. The Special Collections and A.O. Gross Archive had a wealth of information from Gross' decades of work and photography; according to Burgess' papers, his friend had taken a group picture at Matamek.

"Am finishing up the book, what do you prefer for citation. Have spoken with Richard Lindermann and believe my use of materials comes under Fair Use…. I think what would have been truly amazing would be a group photo from Matamek 1931 biological conference in Labrador... which I know Gross had because Burgess mentions it. if you can possibly help, it would be phenomenal... Am working 12 hours a day. My deadline is one week..."

In short order I heard from Caroline Moseley, archival librarian at Bowdoin College Library's Special Collections who was wonderfully willing to search specifically for the image. Two days later, I received from her this photograph, hazy and grainy but unmistakably labeled as the Matamek Conference.

I had no trouble identifying Thornton Burgess as the tall man in the back row, 6th from the left, his hand resting affably on the shoulder of Alfred Gross, 7th from the left.

However, US Fish and Wildlife historian Mark Madison was as intrigued as I was by one figure on the right side of the image: a young woman. She is wearing pants and appears to be comfortably included in the otherwise all-male group, seeming more an equal than a cook or staff member.

Despite its poor quality, the photo definitively documents the elite gathering of scientific experts and officials, among them Dr. Charles Elton, Dr. William Rowan, Dr. Harry Kyle, Dr .H.E. Anthony, Dr. Reid Blair, Dr. Ellsworth Huntington, Dr. Charles H. Townsend, and Aldo Leopold.

These names, if not the faces, are easily familiar to 21st century conservationists, environmentalists, and historians. If Thornton Burgess was out of place among them at Matamek as a famous children's author, he was definitely among his own kind as "Nature's Ambassador" (his phrase, from a 1935 article) for children and adults and as a tireless advocate for stewardship to nature. PHOTO CREDIT: Bowdoin College Library Special Collections and A. O. Gross Papers.


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