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Happy Birthday, Thornton Burgess

Over 140 years ago a baby was born in my house at 6 School Street in Sandwich, Massachusetts. A fierce snowstorm made travel impossible on that January 14 in 1874, even the trains were unable to get through to Boston and Provincetown. But Caroline Burgess, then 22 years old, probably had plenty of help in the home delivery, for both she and her young husband Thornton had parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, as well as many friends in town. When their first and only child was born, they named him Thornton Waldo Burgess, Jr. after his father who would die later that year of tuberculosis.

Presumably Thornton Burgess himself took the above photo of his birthplace. It was sent to me by David Cesan, son of Ernestine Johnson, Burgess’ secretary and loyal friend in his later years in Hampden, Massachusetts. The picture was still in the original envelope that Burgess, a meticulous man, kept it in.

The return address was: Burgess Radio Nature League

Hotel Bradford

Boston, Mass.

Hotel Kimball Springfield, Mass.

We who live in old New England houses are generally realistic about our occupancy and accept that we are more caretakers than owners. Burgess’ birthplace on School Street, now my home, was built more or less around 1835, around the time of the Battle of the Alamo and Andrew Jackson’s Presidency; eight more presidents would follow Jackson before Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated in 1861. When the foundation stones of my house were being laid and square-headed nails being pounded into its wooden timbers, there were only 25 states in the Union.

A decade before Thornton Burgess was born here, people would have sat on my front porch in rockers like the ones in the picture above, discussing national events like the outbreak of the American Civil War, the horrific, bloody battles at Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Gettysburg, and the assassination of Lincoln in 1865. Hundreds have preceded me in living in this house at 6 School Street, and hundreds more will undoubtedly follow.

But it is hard to imagine that any of them achieved or will achieve more than Thornton Burgess.

During a long and active career, he played an important role in the dawn of children’s literature, in the early days of environmental conservation and education, and in the introduction of radio technology. In 1925 his Radio Nature League went on the air. Within its first week, the children’s nature program attracted thousands of listeners, some as far away as England.

His first children’s book was published in 1910; by the end of 1914 he had written 14 more. In 1915 he added to his beloved Bedtime Story-Books series with volumes on the adventures of Danny Meadow Mouse, Grandfather Frog, Chatterer the Red Squirrel, and Sammy Jay, as well as his last of four novels on Boy Scouts and three other books, nine in all that year alone. Half of his 70 books are still in print.

A 1973 cartoon based on his animal stories was created for Japanese television. Within six years it was distributed internationally as "Fables of the Green Forest" and is today on YouTube. He was honored by the New York Zoological Society and the Boston Museum of Science (see my post on Bradford Washburn award).

The distinguished Dr. Theodore Reed, director of the National Zoological Park commented, “In the realm of wildlife conservation and natural history education, there is one name in the United States that must not be forgotten: Thornton W. Burgess.”

Happy Birthday, Mr. Burgess! Thanks for your lifelong effort to promote appreciation and stewardship for the wild creatures we share our planet with, whether mice or bears or hawks or spiders, and for sharing your enduring, deep respect for the environmental ties that link us all.

…and happy birthday too to Chuck Roth, one of the naturalist’s greatest fans and a longtime advocate for the environment as education director at the Mass Audubon Society, and to Bob King, President Emeritus and longtime supporter of the Thornton W. Burgess Society.

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