Nature Conservation and William Brewster: Insights From a Lifetime of Scientific Observations

This post is part of a series from the Ernst Mayr Library exploring the digitization and transcription of ornithologist William Brewster’s archival materials and the insights and scholarship made possible thanks to this work.

Black and white photo of a man sitting on the doorstep of a log cabin in the woods.

A black and white photograph of William Brewster sitting on the front doorstep of his cabin in Concord, Ma. The small, one-story log cabin is set in a hillside and surrounded by small trees and shrubs. The back of the photograph has the note: “Concord, Mass. May 20, 1892.” (Ernst Mayr Library Special Collections, call no. bBr97.70.7.)

The Ernst Mayr Library and Archives of the Museum of Comparative Zoology (MCZ), Harvard University, holds a unique and extensive collection of photographs, letters, manuscripts and field notes of William Brewster, a prominent ornithologist/naturalist of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His published work is lauded as providing authoritative and novel additions to ornithology.

Brewster published more than 300 ornithological papers and several books which are widely available in academic and research libraries. He was the first president of the Massachusetts Audubon Society and was a founding member of the Nuttall Ornithological Club, out of which grew the national organization, the American Ornithologists’ Union. Brewster served as President of the American Ornithologists’ Union from 1895 to 1898, and the organization has awarded a medal in Brewster’s name since 1921.

Brewster’s ornithological studies covered the United States, although he worked most extensively in New England. Brewster was a Curator of Ornithology in the Harvard University Museum of Comparative Zoology from 1885 to 1902, continuing to work in the MCZ until his death in 1919. He deposited his bird specimen collection in the MCZ and his associated works such as his journals, diaries, correspondence and some photographic works in the Ernst Mayr Library & MCZ Archives. Brewster’s extensive specimen collection, in combination with his large body of published work, secures his place in ornithological history.

In 2012, the Ernst Mayr Library began digitizing Brewster’s journals, diaries, letters, and photographic prints. Many have been digitized as part of the CLIR-funded BHL Field Notes Project. To date, virtually all of Brewster’s more than 60,000 pages of notes, correspondence and images have been digitized and nearly 10,000 pages of the handwritten notes and diaries have been transcribed. All materials are in the process of being deposited in the Biodiversity Heritage Library, with more than half of the collection, including all of the journals and diaries, now available. The materials have been collated into the William Brewster Papers Collection.

Brewster kept journals and diaries, mostly devoted to his birding activities, for 54 years from the time he was 14 until he died in 1919. These written records afford us a glimpse into the daily inner workings of this scientist’s mind. The Ernst Mayr Library is fortunate to have his full set of journals and diaries, most of his correspondence and some of his photographs and glass negatives. This is indeed a treasure trove of information, now made more accessible as it is digitized and made openly available in BHL. This collection is more than a record of changing landscapes, bird lists, temperature and weather recorded for each day of writing. It shows us how Brewster developed his ideas, how he thought about the world, and how his thinking changed through his life. In his later correspondence with Frank Chapman (a then-young ornithologist that Brewster mentored into a more mature career), they debated about and revised how to do science with less killing of birds.

handwritten page from a field notebook.

Excerpt of a letter from Frank Michler Chapman to William Brewster. 15 June 1890. Contributed in BHL from the Harvard University, Museum of Comparative Zoology, Ernst Mayr Library.

“This miserable collecting. It is the cause of all higher failing, it lowers a true love of nature through a desire for gain. I don’t mean a specimen here and there, but this shooting right and left, this boasting of how many skins have been made in a day or season. We are becoming pot-hunters. We proclaim how little we know of the habits of birds and then kill them at sight. Sometimes I am completely disgusted with our ways and myself in particular… I long for an outing where the gun will be secondary, recorded observations primary, where I shall be entirely alone or with a companion whose object is my object … The question with me is, how am I going to change this?… Will you embark with me on a novel ornithological expedition, whose aim shall be to really observe birds to learn something of them. Where the gun shall be a servant, not a master, where days may pass without a skin being made, where there will be time to speculate and discuss the habits of birds observed, where systematic observation of certain phaenomena may be attempted.” 15 June 1890, Correspondence, Frank Michler Chapman to William Brewster.

Brewster’s detailed, long-term observations and notes are the key to his published contributions to ornithology and are a unique resource. His diaries, journals and correspondence are a gold mine of unpublished observations, journal notes, sketches, weather reports, specimen lists and travel narratives: these records are primary source data at its most raw and unevaluated. Historical collections of field notes may be the only documentation of a scientist’s thought processes, ideas and observations, particularly if only some of the writer’s material was ever published.

Brewster documented local environmental changes and gradual declines in number and presence of bird species over many years. He was concerned about vanishing wildlife, urbanization and landscape changes. He talked about ecological succession before the concept was officially published.

handwritten page from a field notebook.

Excerpt of a page from William Brewster’s 1896 journal, in which he documents the impact of roadwork on local wildlife. Contributed in BHL from the Harvard University, Museum of Comparative Zoology, Ernst Mayr Library.

“Where the road passes through the woods … the roadworkers last May cut away the mountain maples, [cornels] and other shrubs and low trees that made such a beautiful border to the forest clearing in their places a broad belt of bare rocks half covered with the fallen brush wood. This deed of vandalism was performed while I was here and at the time I feared that years must elapse before Nature, with all her diligence, could repair the injury. I underrated her powers for already this thicket of road is, if anything, more beautiful than ever. Fire weed, Eupatorium, Impatiens, Asters, Golden rod and several other tall and rank flowering plants have shot up through and almost perfectly concealed the unsightly brush and stone heaps and I have rarely seen a more brilliant or attractive display of wild flowers.” 15 August 1896, Lake Umbagog, Maine, Journals of William Brewster

Brewster helped develop legislation to discourage excessive hunting and the use of feathers in women’s hats, although at the same time advocating for the continued, but regulated, collection of scientific specimens. His conservation work led him to become the first president of the Massachusetts Audubon Society. The photographs and negatives from the collections chronicle landscape changes through time. Brewster’s growing concerns about the killing of wildlife, even for scientific purposes, can be seen developing in his field notes and correspondence.

handwritten page from a field notebook.

Excerpt of a page from William Brewster’s 1907 journal, which captures his transition from collecting bird specimens with his shotgun to field observation and photography. Contributed in BHL from the Harvard University, Museum of Comparative Zoology, Ernst Mayr Library.

“If he would become really familiar with the wood folk and their ways, let him go among them unarmed and in a spirit of peace and loving kindness towards them all. Then he will learn many things which the bearers of guns do not know and cannot be made to believe.” August 1907, Journals of William Brewster.

The availability of Brewster’s notebooks enhances contemporary studies and makes the entire research cycle of this scientist’s work available for analysis by historians of science, scientists, social scientists and humanists or anyone interested in the process of discovery, by creating a richer and more interactive history of science resource. Brewster’s careful observations enable comparisons of his birding lists with contemporary observations (100 years plus later), helping to document environmental changes that might not be evident otherwise.


Emmet, Alan. November-December 2007. William Brewster: Brief life of a bird-lover 1851-1919. Harvard Magazine.

Meyer, Elizabeth. April 5, 2018. From ‘Shotgun Ornithology’ to nature conservation: scientific stories and data from the field notes of William Brewster.

Meyer, Elizabeth. April 6, 2017. Notes from William Brewster: The evolving field of zoology.

Meyer, Elizabeth. September 9, 2016. Notes from William Brewster: Ecological change in the Maine woods.

Mitchell, John Hanson. 2014 e-book edition. Looking for Mr. Gilbert: The Unlikely Life of the First African American Landscape Photographer. New York, New York : Open Road Distribution.

Mitchell, John Hanson. 2005. Looking for Mr. Gilbert: the Reimagined Life of an African American. Washington, D.C. : Shoemaker & Hoard : Distributed by Publishers Group West

Randall, Patrick. June 5, 2014. Transcribing the field notes of William Brewster.

Rinaldo, Constance, Linda Ford and Joseph deVeer. 2018. Museum, library and archives partnership: Leveraging digitized data from historical sources. Poster presentation at Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections, August 2018, Dunedin, New Zealand.

Sears, M. 2020. Celebrating Robert Gilbert. Ernst Mayr Library Blog post:

Written by

Constance Rinaldo, formerly the Head Librarian of the Ernst Mayr Library of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University, supported the work of BHL for 17 years. During her many years of leadership at BHL, she served in all positions of the Members Council Executive Committee, including as the inaugural BHL Secretary, followed by Vice-Chair, Chair, and Immediate Past Chair.