William Brewster (ornithologist)

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William Brewster
Portrait of William Brewster
BornJuly 5, 1851
DiedJuly 11, 1919(1919-07-11) (aged 68)
Academic background
Academic work
Main interestsOrnithologist

William Brewster (July 5, 1851 – July 11, 1919) was an American ornithologist. He co-founded the American Ornithologists' Union (AOU) and was an early naturalist and conservationist.[1]

Early life and education[edit]


William Brewster was born on July 5, 1851, in South Reading (now Wakefield), Massachusetts, the youngest of four children born to John Brewster, a successful Boston banker, and Rebecca Parker (Noyes). The couple settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1845. Brewster's sister and older brothers died in early childhood, inspiring Longfellow, a close neighbor, to write the poem The Open Window.[2]

Brewster attended Cambridge public schools, Washington Grammar School and Cambridge High School, taking a preparatory course to enter Harvard. He suffered eyesight problems as a youth and into adulthood. He was often unable to read or study, sometimes for extended periods. During his last year of high school, he was unable to read so his mother read his lessons to him.[2][3] His vision problems prevented him from entering Harvard.[4]

Early bird study[edit]

At about the age of 10, Brewster became close friends with a boy his age, Daniel French. French's father was a hunter and amateur taxidermist who displayed his skill in cases in his home.[2] Brewster's father gave him a gun and taught him to shoot, providing a means of collecting birds to study. In the nineteenth century, shooting was the usual way of collecting specimens. Binoculars were not generally available until the early twentieth century.[4] In his book, Birds of the Cambridge Region, Brewster himself wrote, "On January 1, 1862, my friend Mr. Daniel C. French called at our house to give me my first lesson in taxidermy, an art known in those days to but very few persons save the professional bird stuffers." By 1865, Brewster had several cases of mounted birds and a collection of nests and eggs. A few years later, he learned to make skins and gave up mounting stuffed birds.[2]

Brewster kept detailed records of his observations and continued to do so for the rest of his life.[2][4] To encourage his interests, his father presented him with the five volumes of Audubon's Ornithological Biography.[4]

Career and accomplishments[edit]

William Brewster Audubon.jpg

In 1880, he became assistant in charge of the collection of birds and mammals in the Boston Society of Natural History, and in 1885 became curator of mammals and birds at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University, where he served until his death, though after 1900 he cared for birds alone, and he left his position at the Boston Society of Natural History in 1887.[3][4][5] He also devoted substantial time to his own private museum of ornithology.[3]

Brewster was a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and in 1876 became president of the Nuttall Ornithological Club of Cambridge,[5] of which he was the founder in 1873.[6] He was a co-founder, with Elliott Coues and Joel Asaph Allen, of the American Ornithologists' Union (AOU) in 1883[7] and served as its president from 1895 to 1898.[2]

Brewster served as the first president of Mass Audubon (Massachusetts Audubon Society) from 1896–1913, founded by Harriet Lawrence Hemenway (1858–1960) and Minna B. Hall, with a mandate to advance legislation to restrict the killing of birds and sale of their plumage. The group, with over half its officers being women, used its political power to have a Massachusetts law passed in 1897 outlawing trade in wild bird feathers and the 1900 Lacey Act, which prohibits interstate shipment of animals killed in violation of local laws.

Published works[edit]

Brewster published over 300 articles[2] in the Bulletin of the Nuttall Ornithological Club, in the Annals of the New York Lyceum of Natural History, Proceedings of the Boston Society of Natural History, The Auk, and other periodicals. He wrote:

Unpublished works[edit]

The Ernst Mayr Library of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University maintains an archive of Brewster's journals, diaries, field notebooks, correspondence, and photographs. Much of this material has been digitized[8] and is available through the Biodiversity Heritage Library.[9]

William Brewster Memorial Award[edit]

In honor of Brewster, the AOU awards the William Brewster Memorial Award "to the author or co-authors (not previously so honored) of an exceptional body of work on birds of the Western Hemisphere."[10] The award, consisting of a medal and honorarium, was given every other year from 1921 through 1937 and then annually.


  1. ^ "BREWSTER, William". The International Who's Who in the World. 1912. p. 174.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g "In Memoriam: William Brewster". The Auk. Cambridge, Massachusetts: American Ornithologists' Union. 37: 1–23. January 1920. doi:10.2307/4072953. Retrieved 24 April 2012.
  3. ^ a b c Rines, George Edwin, ed. (1920). "Brewster, William, American ornithologist and author" . Encyclopedia Americana.
  4. ^ a b c d e Emmet, Alan (November–December 2007). "William Brewster, Brief life of a bird-lover: 1851-1919". Harvard Magazine. Vol. 110 no. 2.
  5. ^ a b One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainWilson, J. G.; Fiske, J., eds. (1900). "Brewster, William, ornithologist" . Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography. New York: D. Appleton.
  6. ^ "Nuttall Ornithological Club". Retrieved 29 March 2012.
  7. ^ Orr, Oliver H (1992). Saving American birds: T. Gilbert Pearson and the founding of the Audubon movement. University Press of Florida. p. 22. ISBN 978-0-8130-1129-5.
  8. ^ http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/ernstmayrlibrary/2014/05/30/transcribing-the-field-notes-of-william-brewster/
  9. ^ https://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/search?searchTerm=william+brewster#/titles
  10. ^ "William Brewster Memorial Award". Retrieved 24 April 2012.