Nelson, Edward D.

Source: USFWS
caption Edward W. Nelson. (Photo: Smithsonian)

Edward W. Nelson (1855-1934), American naturalist who played an important role in the founding of the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service.

Edward W. Nelson was born in Manchester, New Hampshire, on May 8, 1855. He attended both Northwestern University, in 1875, and Johns Hopkins University, from 1876 to 1877, and he received an honorary MA from Yale and Sc.D. from George Washington University, both in 1920.

Early in his field experience as a naturalist, Nelson corresponded with Henry Wetherbee Henshaw who later succeeded Clinton Hart Merriam as Chief of the Bureau of Biological Survey in 1910. Henshaw encouraged Nelson to contact Spencer Fullerton Baird, who was Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. Under Baird's guidance, Nelson collected specimens and data, and in 1877 Baird arranged a position for him as a weather observer for the U.S. Signal Corp in St. Michael, Alaska, where he worked until 1881. In that period, Nelson's daring expeditions were documented in his meticulously detailed journals, articles, and letters. He recorded and collected the plants, animals, birds, fish, and insects that he saw, along with the customs and rituals of the native peoples. His interest in collecting art and everyday items used by the various tribes caused them to name him "the man who collected good-for-nothing things."

Upon leaving Alaska in 1881, Nelson worked as a rancher in the Western United States while recuperating from tuberculosis. In 1890 he was well enough to continue his biological explorations for the Biological Survey and traveled widely in California and Mexico.

In 1916, Nelson followed his mentor, Henry Henshaw, as Chief of the Bureau of Biological Survey in Washington, D.C., where he served until 1927. He authored three studies in the North American Fauna series which were issued by the Bureau of Biological Survey. Nelson's career as an explorer and naturalist spanned over five decades during which many species of plants and animals were named after him—a common practice of the times. The name of Edward Nelson was conferred on, among other things, a mountain range in California, a lagoon in Alaska, and an island at the mouth of the Yukon. In addition, over 100 species of plants, birds and mammals were named for him including a skunk ("Just so it is a good skunk," said Nelson), a squirrel, several mice, a woodpecker, and a bat.

Disclaimer: This article is taken wholly from, or contains information that was originally published by, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Topic editors and authors for the Encyclopedia of Earth may have edited its content or added new information. The use of information from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service should not be construed as support for or endorsement by that organization for any new information added by EoE personnel, or for any editing of the original content.



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