William Brewster (1851-1919)

June 24, 2017

Born in Wakefield, Massachusetts, William Brewster was born on July 5, 1851, and went on to become a noted ornithologist.

A descendant of Massachusetts pilgrims, Brewster was educated in the Cambridge public school system and spent his childhood observing birds. He had planned to attend Harvard College, but his weak eyesight and poor health deterred him from pursuing a career in business. He instead studied ornithology and practiced taxidermy, the evidence of which can be seen at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology.

Brewster recorded the diverse bird life in Cambridge, Concord, and greater New England, collecting local and international specimens. He helped organize the Nuttall Ornithological Club (1873) and the American Ornithologists’ Union (1883), serving as president for both groups. He later served as the first president of the Massachusetts Audubon Society following its formation in 1896.

A prolific writer, Brewster’s diaries and texts were published posthumously. October Farm (1936) and Concord River (1937) were detailed observations of birdlife framed within the landscape of Concord. In The Birds of the Cambridge Region of Massachusetts (1906), Brewster detailed the habitats of the Cambridge area and outlined a comprehensive list of native birds. While the text offered rich analysis and observation of the local landscape, it did not ignore the negative ecological changes: infected trees, filled meadows and swamps, and the development that forced out birds.

Brewster’s passion for nature was the impetus behind his advocacy for the conservation and preservation of natural habitats. He made his works widely accessible with the hopes of inspiring others. Brewster died in Cambridge in 1919 and is buried with his wife in the Brewster family lot. The Quincy granite stone used for Brewster’s grave marker was overseen by his longtime friend, sculptor Daniel Chester French, and is inscribed with the Scripture:

For, lo, the winter is past,

the flowers appear on the earth;

 the time of the singing of birds is come.

William Brewster grave

William Brewster is buried at Mount Auburn in Lot 1099 on Larch Avenue.

Adapted from the research of Janet Heywood, as published in Mount Auburn’s Person of the Week: William Brewster, 2001.

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