T. Gilbert Pearson (1873–1943)
THOMAS GILBERT PEARSON was one of the founding fathers of the conservation movement in the United States. Pearson was also one of the first members of the faculty at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (then called the State Normal and Industrial College), and he took his biology classes to Peabody Park from the time of the Park’s founding in 1901. While he was a member of the faculty he established the first Audubon Society chapter in North Carolina, and he later went on to become a founder and president of the National Association of Audubon Societies (now called the National Audubon Society, and one of the leading conservation organizations in the world).
Elisabeth Ann Bowles published a short sketch of Pearson’s years in Greensboro in her book A Good Beginning: The First Four Decades of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (Chapel Hill, 1967):
T. GILBERT PEARSON, 1873–1943. A Quaker from Illinois, T. Gilbert Pearson wrote to President Lewis Lyndon Hobbs of Guilford College [in Greensboro] offering his collection of bird eggs and specimens as an initial payment on a college education. He further suggested that he might pay his expenses by developing the first ornithologic museum at a North Carolina college. Dr. Hobbs accepted the young man’s offer, and Pearson was graduated from Guilford College in 1897. In 1899 he earned a B.S. degree from the University of North Carolina [at Chapel Hill], which awarded him an honorary degree in 1924.
Pearson taught first at Guilford and then at the State Normal [now the University of North Carolina at Greensboro]. In the three years he spent at the Normal, he published his first book, Stories of Bird Life, made the study of biology more practical by field trips in Peabody Park, and organized the first Audubon Society in North Carolina, a project to which he was to devote the rest of his life.
From 1903 to 1910 Pearson was a secretary of the North Carolina Audubon Society and state game commissioner. With other ornithologists he organized the National Association of Audubon Societies in 1905 and served as secretary and executive officer from 1910 to 1920 and as president from 1920 to 1935.
Pearson’s autobiography, Adventures in Bird Protection, records his lifelong interest in ornithology. He was editor-in-chief of the three volume Birds of America, senior author of Birds of North Carolina, and co-editor of Book of Birds.
A more comprehensive account of Pearson’s life and work was published by the Board of Directors of the National Audubon Society in Audubon Magazine (42: 370–371, November–December 1943) at the time of Pearson’s death:
THE WORK of one of the great conservationists of our time is finished, but Gilbert Pearson’s influence will long endure in the movement to which he was devoted, and his memory will be treasured by all who love wild things.
Thomas Gilbert Pearson was born at Tuscola, Illinois on November 10, 1873. He was the son of Thomas Barnard and Mary Elliott Pearson. Boyhood was spent in that primitive Florida which was a fitting background for his life work. In 1902 he married Elsie Weatherly of North Carolina and from this happy marriage three children were born: Elizabeth (Mrs. C.T. Jackson), Gilbert, Jr. and William. He was educated at Guilford College and at the University of North Carolina, carrying forward his education by teaching biology at Guilford and at the North Carolina State Normal and Industrial College at Greensboro [now the University of North Carolina at Greensboro]. He was Secretary of the North Carolina Audubon Society, 1902–04; Secretary of the National Association of Audubon Societies, 1905–20; President, 1920–24 and President Emeritus from 1934 to his death on September 3, 1943. He was President of the International Committee for Bird Preservation, 1922–1938; Chairman of the United States Section, 1922–43; and Chairman of the Pan-American Section, 1938–43. For twenty years he was a member of the Advisory Committee on the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. He was honored in 1925 by Luxembourg with membership in the National Order of the Oaken Crown; with the medal of the Societé National d’Acclimatation de France in 1937; with the John Burroughs Memorial Association Medal in 1939; and with the degree of LLD by the University of North Carolina in 1924. He was the author of “Stories of Bird Life,” 1901; “The Bird Study Book,” 1917; “Tales from Birdland,” 1918; “Adventures in Bird Protection,” 1937; senior author, “Birds of North Carolina,” 1919, revised edition, 1942; editor-in-chief, “Birds of America,” three volumes, 1917; co-editor, “The Book of Birds,” 1937.
Gilbert Pearson was a pioneer. Only one familiar with the indifference to conservation in all but a few states a generation ago can appreciate the work which he undertook in North Carolina and the skill with which he guided through the legislature of that state in 1903, and later through other southern states, the bill which was to be for many years the model Audubon Law. Although William Dutcher, as its first President, laid the foundations of the National Audubon Society, Pearson had a large share in its early planning, and succeeded Dutcher so early as its guiding genius that he must be considered the chief builder of the Audubon work in this country. It was he, again, who began large-scale nature education among children and under his guidance the Audubon Junior Clubs molded the nature interests of more than five million American school children. In a fourth field, that of international bird protection, he was a pioneer among those who realized that no one country could fight alone the battle for the birds.
He was too wise to think that the cause he loved could be served in one country alone. Increasingly, as the work in North America was put on a solid foundation, he sought friends and associates across the ocean and in our sister American republics to the south. Not only were existing organizations in Europe and in Latin America stirred to new life by his visits, and national groups formed where there had been none before, but progress was made in bringing these national groups together in effective cooperation for a common cause. From the beginning Gilbert Pearson knew what he wanted to do, and to the end of his life he did it. There were no false starts, nor ever any thought of turning back. For a generation the Audubon movement was Pearson’s life; for a generation, in the mind of the American public, the Audubon Society meant Pearson. Writer, crusader, molder of legislation, money-raiser, teacher, administrator: in all that he did every energy, every ability was focused on the protection of wild creatures and on the building of an association of like-minded protectors of the world of nature from the ruthlessness or thoughtlessness of man.
Nature-lovers all over the world will join with us in paying tribute to our friend. As long as the National Audubon Society lives and serves it will owe a debt of gratitude to this far-seeing and courageous leader.
© RJO 1995–2013