A Brief History of the Club

Thomas Nuttall

The Nuttall Ornithological Club, founded in 1873, was the first organization in North America devoted to ornithology. During the Club’s nearly 150 years of existence, its members have been remarkably influential in the field of ornithology. A glance through the membership list reveals a virtual Who’s Who in North American Ornithology.

Perhaps the most important contribution of the Club to ornithology has been its publications, which it has sponsored since its early history. From 1876 to 1883 the Club published the first journal in North America devoted to ornithology, the Bulletin of the Nuttall Ornithological Club. In 1883 the Club “donated” the Bulletin to the newly formed American Ornithologists’ Union (AOU, now called the American Ornithological Society, AOS), along with its editor J. A. Allen, and the Bulletin became The Auk. Between 1886 and 2022 the Club published 25 monographs in its Memoirs series, since 1957 there have been 29 monographs in its Publications series, and in 2007-2008 three volumes were co-published with the AOU.

William Brewster

One of the founders of the Nuttall Ornithological Club and its first president was William Brewster. Brewster was, as so many of the ornithologists of that time, a gentleman of means with an insatiable curiosity about the natural world. A short biography of Brewster was written by William E. Davis, Jr., published in 2019 by the Club in Contributions to the History of North American Ornithology, Volume IV, and may be accessed here.

Many substantial contributions to ornithology have come not from the Club itself, but from the work of individual members. Although many major contributions were made prior to their membership or after they were no longer active in the Club, the list of achievements by members is considerable. Club members have been active contributors to the AOU. J. A. Allen, Batchelder, Brewster, C. B. Cory, Henshaw, and Purdie were founders (see J. A. Allen, 1899. The American Ornithologists’ Union. Bird Lore, 1: 142-148) and in addition to the first four of these men, Bent, Coues, Dwight, Mayr, Merriam, J. L. Peters, and Van Tyne have been presidents of the AOU. Griscom was elected president but was unable to serve because of illness. Most of the AOU Founders were Corresponding Members of the Club. Several members have been vice presidents of the AOU, and several were editors of the Auk. In addition, there have been at least 20 Elective Members, and nearly 40 Fellows who have been Club members.

Roger Tory Peterson and Ludlow Griscom

Bagg, Peterson, Pettingill, Strong, and Van Tyne were presidents of the Wilson Ornithological Club (now Wilson Ornithological Society), and Van Tyne was the editor of the Wilson Bulletin. The Northeastern Bird Banding Association (now Association of Field Ornithologists) has been well represented by Club members. Ten presidents and an additional nine vice presidents have come from the ranks of the Club, as well as a half-dozen editors of Bird-Banding (now Journal of Field Ornithology), and two secretary-treasurers. Several Club members were organizers of the Colonial Waterbird Group (now Colonial Waterbird Society) and include a president (Buckley), a secretary, and a newsletter editor.

In the more broad professional organizations the Club has been well represented as well. Nearly 30 Fellows of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and nearly 50 Fellows of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, two of whom served as vice president, have been Club members.

Club members have a long history of service to the various Audubon societies. William Brewster was the first president of the Massachusetts Audubon Society, at least 24 directors of that organization were club members. In addition to Brewster, R. Walcott and Borden served as presidents, Mason and Buchheister as executive directors, and Morgan as executive vice president. The Club membership has also included presidents of the Maine, New Hampshire, and Wyoming Audubon societies, and directors of the Audubon Society of Rhode Island.

Baker and Buchheister were presidents of the National Audubon Society, Griscom was chairman of the board, and three other Club members were directors. Peterson and Pettingill were secretaries.

At least six members have been the state ornithologist for Massachusetts, and one member was the state ornithologist for West Virginia. Locally, several members have been president of the Boston Society of Natural History. For more than a century the curator of birds at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard has been a Club member, as have several directors of the museum.

Members of the Club have had a substantial impact on a wide variety of bird clubs. The clubs in which Nuttall members have held executive positions include Essex County Ornithological Club, Forbush Bird Club, Brookline Bird Club, Merrimack Valley Bird Club, the American Birding Association, Rhode Island Ornithological Club, and South Shore Bird Club, to name but a few.

For their professional accomplishments in a spectrum of bird-related activities, a number of Club members have received recognition in the form of medals or other awards. Perhaps the most noteworthy of these, but not at all ornithologically related, was the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Theodore Roosevelt many years after he left the Cambridge area. Bartholomew, Bent, Mayr, J. L. Peters, Peterson, W. H. Phelps, Sr., and J. C. Phillips all received the prestigious Brewster Memorial Medal awarded by the AOU, an award named after a founder of the Club. Bent, H. B. Bigelow, Griffin, and Mayr have received the Daniel Giraud Elliot Medal awarded by the National Academy of Sciences. Other awards to Club members include the Agassiz Medal, the Conservation Medal of the National Audubon Society, Wallace-Darwin Medal of the Linnean Society of London, Verrill Medal of Yale University, the Arthur A. Allen Award from Cornell University, and a variety of gold medals presented by various organizations. R. T. Peterson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1980, the highest award given to a civilian by the United States, and E. Mayr received the National Medal of Science in 1970 and the prestigious Balzan Prize from Switzerland in 1983. The list of awards received by Club members is truly impressive.

Many Club members have been involved in the conservation movement. In addition to those involved with the various Audubon societies, there are members who, for example, have been a director of the World Wildlife Fund, chairman of the Massachusetts Conservation Council, secretary of the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary Association, a founder of the International Wild Waterfowl Association, president of the Appalachian Mountain Club, president of BirdsCaribbean, and secretary of the United States section of the International Council for Bird Preservation. The founding director of the Manomet Bird Observatory, now the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences, K. S. Anderson, was a member and the first female President of the Club.