1977 Horatio Alger Award Winner
"Don't believe everything you see and hear; make your own judgments."
Born in Jamestown, New York, Roger Tory Peterson was the son of a Swedish immigrant. Although the family was poor, young Peterson's love for birds was so great that he spent every spare penny he earned from odd jobs to buy bird seed and, eventually, a camera. His father, a cabinetmaker, disapproved of his son's obsession. But Peterson saw birds as great symbols of freedom and liberty.
Peterson's skill in sketching birds got him a job in a furniture factory painting Chinese designs on lacquer chests. After completing high school, he went to New York to study at the Art Students' League and the National Academy of Design.
While teaching science and art at the River School in Brookline, Massachusetts, Peterson continued to compile paintings of birds. He took his idea for a simple bird guide to five publishers before Houghton Mifflin agreed to publish 2,000 copies of Field Guide to the Birds. The first press run sold out in less than a week, and has been Houghton Mifflin's best-seller on any subject over the past 60 years. This book was followed by a series of other guidebooks to wildlife and natural history subjects ranging from butterflies and wildflowers to animal tracks and shells. Each volume of the Wildlife Guide series, now numbering 50, features the "Peterson System" of identification.
By serving as "an interpreter between the scientist and the layman," Peterson's work has increased public appreciation of nature and wildlife conservation. "Birds are indicators of the environment," he says. "If they are in trouble, we know we'll soon be in trouble."
Peterson's gallery paintings of birds have been exhibited in dozens of museums and have become collector's items. He was the recipient of 23 honorary degrees in science, letters, and fine arts, and he received numerous awards in recognition of his contributions to science, education, and conservation, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1980. An internationally known lecturer, filmmaker, and photographer, Peterson has been credited with helping to build the modern environmental movement. In recognition for the impact of his work, he has been twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
A book recently published by Rizzoli, Roger Tory Peterson: The Art and Photography of the World's Foremost Birder, gives a good chronology of his work, showing its development from earlier beginnings to its present form.
In 1993, the Roger Tory Peterson Institute of Natural History was dedicated in Jamestown, New York, to carry on his work for future generations. The Institute's mission is to educate society about the natural world.
Peterson said of the future, "Not all is doom and gloom. We are beginning to understand the natural world and are gaining a reverence for life-all life."* Deceased