May Theilgaard Watts

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May Theilgaard Watts

May Theilgaard Watts (1893 – 20 August 1975) was an American writer, illustrator, and teacher.

Watts was the daughter of Danish immigrants. She grew up in the Ravenswood neighborhood of Chicago, Illinois, but began a teaching career in a one-room schoolhouse outside of the city. She attended college during the summer at the University of Chicago, where she studied botany and ecology with Henry Chandler Cowles. Watts graduated in 1918 as a Phi Beta Kappa.

As a scientist, Watts worked at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Illinois, as a staff naturalist. She produced scientific studies as well as flower and tree identification guides. She retired in 1961.

While working at the arboretum, she authored several books and guides that helped nonscientists to interpret the landscape. Her 1957 Reading the Landscape was among the most widely read and used for decades by educators. Watts described places ranging from backyard gardens to the Indiana Dunes to the Rocky Mountain timberline. She wrote a similar volume, Reading the Landscape of Europe. She extended her knowledge of the natural world to the public in a column written for the Chicago Tribune, and had an educational horticulture program on public television.

Watts also led efforts to establish the Illinois Prairie Path on an abandoned railroad line. Inspired by the public footpaths of Britain and by the Appalachian Trail in the eastern United States, she believed Midwestern residents needed similar recreational trails. Her 1963 letter-to-the-editor of the Chicago Tribune warned that “bulldozers are drooling” [1] and rapid action needed to be taken. She was honored at the 1971 dedication ceremony.[2]

She has had the May T. Watts Nature Park in Highland Park, Illinois, and the May Watts Elementary School in Naperville, Illinois, named after her.

Her house in Highland Park is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The architect for the house was John S. Van Bergen and the landscape architect was Jens Jensen.

Partial bibliography[edit]

  • Tree Finder: A Pocket Manual for Identification of Trees by Their Leaves (Naperville, Ill.: Nature Study Guild, 1939).
  • Flower Finder: A Guide to Identification of Spring Wild Flowers and Flower Families (Naperville, Ill.: Nature Study Guild, 1955).
  • Reading the Landscape: An Adventure in Ecology (New York: Macmillan, 1957).
  • Reading the landscape of Europe (New York: Harper & Row, 1971).
  • Reading the Landscape of America (New York: Macmillan, 1975).


  1. ^ May Theilgaard Watts, letter to the editor, Chicago Tribune, 30 September 1963.
  2. ^ Seslar, Tom (November 14, 1971), "78-Year-Old 'Trail Blazer' Honored at Path Dedication", Chicago Tribune 

External links[edit]