Dr. Roger Tory Peterson, renowned author, illustrator, naturalist, and environmentalist died at his home in Old Lyme, Connecticut in late July 1996. Peterson became interested in birds at age 11 in Jamestown, New York, where he joined a Junior Audubon Club an elementary school teacher had started. In a 1991 interview in Wildlife Conservation, he recalled that life-determining event to the hour -- 8:30 a.m. on April 8, 1920.
His teacher gave him a color plate from Louis Agassiz Fuertes' Birds of New York, water colors and a brush. He was instructed to copy the blue jay plate. Best-known for his 1934 A Field Guide to Birds, the first in more than 50 titles in the Peterson Field Guide Series, published by Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, "RTP" as he was affectionately known, ushered in a new era of individual environmental and conservation awareness.
I've known the name of Roger Tory Peterson from childhood. My next door neighbor, Barbara Garsoe, started a Junior Audubon Club, which I joined when I was ten or eleven years old. We went to an Audubon camp outside of Freeport, Maine, where I was first introduced to Peterson Field Guides, particularly A Field Guide to Birds and A Field Guide to Wildflowers (1968), co-authored by Roger Tory Peterson and Margaret McKinney. It was the Peterson Field Guides that sparked my interest in identifying the flora and fauna around my Maine home. The Peterson Field Guide Series published by Houghton Mifflin and edited by Roger Tory Peterson, contains more than 70 titles including field guides, beginner's guides, coloring books, and cassettes. RTP wrote fifteen of them himself. While I never had the opportunity to meet him, I have had the honor to write two Peterson Field Guides, A Field Guide to Medicinal Plants: Eastern and Central North America (with James A. Duke, 1990), and Venomous Anim als and Poisonous Plants of North America (with Roger Caras, 1994). I currently have contracts to do A Field Guide to Southeastern Wildflowers, and A Field Guide to Medicinal Plants: Western North America (with Christopher Hobbs).
While RTP is best-known for his work with birds, the various plant guides in the series cover a wide range of topics including eastern wildflowers, Pacific state wildflowers, Rocky Mountain wildflowers, Southwestern and desert wildflowers, ferns, eastern and western trees, mushrooms, and edible plants, ecology of eastern and western forests, in addition to medicinal plants and poisonous plants. These plant field guides have introduced two generations of Americans to the flora around them and the human relationship to the flora.
The name Roger Tory Peterson is synonymous with "birding" as the result of the success of his first field guide, now in its fourth edition, which has sold more than 7 million copies. Twenty-four honorary doctorates were conferred upon him along with gold medals from major American and European wildlife societies, plus the Presidential Medal of Freedom. However, in my opinion, history will remember him foremost for his contribution to education and the environment in the twentieth century. He took nature out of museums and books and put it in the hands of individuals who could easily learn what was in their own backyards. Without his contribution, conservation and the environmental movement may not have emerged into popular consciousness. He made understanding nature easy for any child, man or woman who desired to learn about life around them.
Article copyright American Botanical Council.