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Joseph Grinnell, the Most Influential Environmentalist You Never Heard Of PDF Print E-mail
Written by Michael Strainic, Case Western Reserve University   
Wednesday, 20 April 2011 00:17

August 31, 2005 the Joseph Grinnell Medal was awarded in LeConte Hall on the campus of the University of California Berkeley. So the questions arise: who is Joseph Grinnell, what were his contributions and what are his Grinnell roots?

Joseph Grinnell was born on February 27, 1877 at the Kiowa, Comanche and Wichita Indian Agency on the Washita River in Indian Territory. His father, Fordyce Grinnell M.D., the agency physician, was the second son of Jeremiah Austin Grinnell, Quaker minister of note among the Friends of Vermont and Iowa and later California. As were his distant cousins George Bird Grinnell and Joseph Grinnell of New Bedford, Fordyce was descended from Matthew Greenell.

Sarah Elizabeth Pratt, Joseph’s mother, also a birthright Quaker was the daughter of a minister, Joseph Howland Pratt of Maine and New Hampshire. Both of Joseph Grinnell’s parents were descended from “early-come-overs”. Frances Cooke, John Alden and Richard Warren of the Mayflower were among their early ancestors.

In 1880 Dr. Fordyce Grinnell moved his family to the Dakotas, where Chief Red Cloud’s people were gathered. During this Sioux period Joseph played with the Indian children learning to see and listen to nature as they did. Apparently, he became a favorite of Chief Red Cloud for years later when Red Cloud dictated letters to the Grinnell family, he also included a special message for “my little friend Joe”. In 1885 the family moved to Pasadena, and at the age of eight Joseph started his formal education.

Pasadena was a wild area at that time: perfect for a budding naturalist and ornithologist. Joseph’s collection started with a toad when he was thirteen. By seventeen, the hobby of bird study had changed to a full-time undertaking marked by the beginning of a permanent catalog with specimen #72, the Red-shafted Flicker, that contained nearly 4500 bird skins by the time he entered Stanford University for graduate study. After high school Joseph was thought too young and too small to go away to university: so at the age of sixteen he matriculated at the local Polytechnic institute for four years earning an A.B.

In 1898, at the age of 21, Grinnell took a schooner into the Bering Sea during the Alaskan gold rush. This was the first expedition of his career and the specimens from this trip still reside in the museum at Berkeley. While in the field, it was not Grinnell’s practice to head for the nearest hotel. Instead he pitched his tent in a sheltered area in order to get the most from this out-door surrounding. While setting up camp in the customary way, he nevertheless was an enthusiastic advocate for change. He treated each animal as if for the first time and while on these expeditions he developed the methods of systematized wildlife observation that are still used today by UC Berkeley-trained biologists. He refined the use of detailed field journals, telling his assistants, “You can’t tell in advance which observations will prove valuable. Do record them all.” Today it is that treasure trove of old field notes that  zoologists and others are beginning to research for fresh insights about global climate change.

Grinnell was first and foremost an ornithologist authoring more than 500 scientific papers on the subject.. “In vertebrate biology, he is probably the most important person the early 20th century. “ There is hardly a mammalogist or ornithologist in this country who doesn’t trace his or her lineage to Grinnell” according to Jim Patton, former curator of Grinnell’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at Berkeley.

Like his distant cousin, George Bird Grinnell, Joseph was instrumental in shaping the philosophy of the National Park System and in securing the long-term protection of Yosemite, one of our great National Parks. In 1905, at the request of the mining and ranching interests, Congress reduced Yosemite’s area by 500 square miles and in 1913 Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy Valley was dammed and eventually flooded to supply San Francisco’s drinking water. When he became founding director of Berkeley’s museum in 1908, Grinnell started a letter campaign to government and park officials arguing for conservationist policies. The Park was already thought to be at risk as a wilderness sanctuary when Joseph started his wildlife survey in 1915. Many of his ideas from placing trained naturalists in national parks to prohibiting hunting and trapping park animals are in place today, although they are often attributed to others since he had an aversion to any kind of publicity.

Grinnell was the first naturalist to put forth the concept of the “ecological niche”, the particular role of each species in its environment. His theory was published in 1924 and has proved to be one of the organizing principals of nature. The concept is that in nature there is competitive exclusion i.e. no two species can occupy the same niche for a period of time without one excluding the other. This concept and his detailed field journals which could be used 100 years later to note change in Yosemite suggest that Grinnell was truly a visionary.

Joseph Grinnell served as the UC Berkeley Museum of Vertebrate Zoology’s Director from 1908 until his death in 1939. He died of a stroke at the age of 62 leaving behind a wife and four children.

Last Updated on Sunday, 11 September 2011 11:11