Georg Steller (1709 – 1746)
Steller was born in Germany in 1709 and trained as a botanist, zoologist, and medical doctor. He went to Russia and joined Vitus Bering’s Second Kamchatka Expedition and became the first European known to set foot in Alaska, landing on Kayak Island on July 20, 1741. Bering gave Steller only 10 hours to explore the island and collect samples before weighing anchor and returning home. Of the six species of birds and mammals that Steller described, two are extinct, three are endangered; only the Steller’s jay – which he pointed to as proof that Alaska was part of North America -- is not threatened. Steller was often mocked by the Russian crew, but when they were shipwrecked on their way back to Russia, he treated them for scurvy, saving their lives. Steller never made it home, dying of fever in Siberia. Grave robbers dug up his body and stole his coat.
Mary Anning (1799 – 1847)
Anning’s family supplemented their meager income by finding and selling fossils in Lyme Regis, Dorset, England. Mary, one of 10 children, discovered and identified the first Ichthyosaur skeleton when she was twelve years old. In 1823, she discovered the first complete Plesiosaurus and, in 1828, the first British example of the flying reptiles known as Pterosaurs, followed by a Squaloraja fish skeleton in 1829. Largely self-taught, she immersed herself in scientific literature and findings, and in her twenties opened a fossil shop that drew prominent collectors and scientists from England, Europe, and the United States. Over the years, her finds and her analyses of them proved that that species could evolve and go extinct, contributing to changes in scientific thinking about prehistoric life and the history of the Earth. Her reputation as a paleontologist grew, but she was denied membership in the Geographic Society because she was a woman. Still, as a measure of their high regard, when she died at 47 of breast cancer, the president of the Society wrote her eulogy.
Charles Darwin (1809 – 1882)
Darwin slowly developed his theory of evolution -- that all living creatures are descendants of common ancestors, and that natural selection adds and subtracts attributes, just as selective breeding does in agriculture and husbandry — in 1838, after returning from a five-year circumnavigation on the HMS Beagle. Fearing criticism by the Church of England, he kept his theory to himself until Alfred Russel Wallace independently developed the same theory (Wallace was a close companion of Henry Walter Bates, who developed the theory of mimicry, supporting the theory of evolution), and in 1858 Darwin and Wallace published a joint paper. A year later Darwin published his On the Origin of Species, in which he said of mankind’s origins only, "Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history." Darwin first used the term “evolution” in The Descent of Man in 1871. His 1872 book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals explored the evolution of human and animal psychology. Darwin is buried in Westminster Abbey, not far from John Herschel and Isaac Newton.
John Muir (1838 – 1914)
Born in Scotland and educated in Wisconsin, Muir was a naturalist with particular interests in botany and glaciers, who came to be one of the first and most influential environmental philosophers. His writings (12 books and many essays) and his personal influence were critical to establishing Yosemite National Park (1890) and Sequoia National Park (also 1890). Best known for his writings about the California Sierras and co-founding the influential Sierra Club in 1892, Muir also spent considerable time exploring Canada and walking 1,000 miles from Kentucky to Florida. In his later years, he made four trips to Alaska, exploring the Southeast and later, in 1881, the outer coast into the arctic on the USS Corwin. He later joined the Harriman Expedition in 1899, steaming from Seattle to Siberia and back. In his writings, Muir expresses a religious ecstasy for nature, arguing the value of wilderness was far more than the resources extracted from it. He died in Los Angeles at the age of 91.
Alexander was a paleontologist, botanist, explorer, and philanthropist who founded the University of California (Berkeley) Museum of Paleontology and the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology and UCB’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology in 1908. Born in Hawaii, her interest in paleontology was sparked by a visit to Crater Lake in Oregon, and she began auditing paleontology lectures at the University of California, Berkeley. There, she met paleontologist and conservationist John C. Merriman in 1900 and participated in his expeditions in 1901 to Fossil Lake in Oregon and in 1902 and 1903 to Shasta County, California. In 1906 and 1907 she organized expeditions to Alaska that explored the Malaspina Glacier on the Lost Coast, the Kenai Peninsula, and Admiralty Island. Alexander understood the link between understanding the science of nature and the will to preserve it, and she put her intellect and resources to this end. By the time of her death, she had collected and donated 20,564 specimens to her museums.
Aldo Leopold (1887 – 1948)
Leopold studied forestry at Yale University and in 1909 was hired by the U.S. Forest Service and sent to the Apache National Forest in the Arizona Territory. A year later he was transferred to the Carson National Forest in northern New Mexico. He wrote the first management plan for the Grand Canyon and proposed the Gila Wilderness Area, the first national wilderness in a National Forest. In 1933 he became a professor in the Agricultural Economics Department at the University of Wisconsin and the Research Director of the UW/Madison’s Arboretum. He is best known for his 1949 book, A Sand County Almanac, which articulates some of the basic tenants of modern conservation, extending the idea of conservation beyond maintaining a sustainable “crop” of wild animals and timber to maintaining wilderness for biological diversity and human restoration. He also recognized the paradox of having to promote and share wilderness – diminishing it – to win the political support needed to save it. He died at age 61, helping fight a wildfire on a neighbor’s property.
Rachel Carson (1907 -- 1964)
Carson started writing stories about animals at age eight, had her first one published at age ten in St. Nicholas magazine. She earned a master’s degree in zoology and was planning to pursue a doctorate, but instead joined the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries (later merged into the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) as a marine biologist to help her struggling family during the Depression. Her first book, The Sea Around Us (1950) was published first as a series of magazine articles and later as a book, followed by two more in a marine trilogy. The Sea Around Us was a bestseller that earned Carson the National Book Award. Her fourth and final book, Silent Spring (1962), first serialized in the New Yorker, described the devastating role of pesticides and jump-started the environmental consciousness of millions of people. The book was directly responsible for a ban on DDT, chlordane, heptachlor, and similar synthetic pesticides; saving hundreds of species from near-certain extinction; and galvanized support for the Environmental Protection Agency. Carson died at age 56 of a heart attack caused by breast cancer. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously.