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William Leon Dawson

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William Leon Dawson


Museum of Natural History’s Original Egghead

How William Leon Dawson’s Fascination with Birds and Eggs Spawned the 100-Year-Old Institution


William Leon Dawson was born in Iowa in 1873. The son of a pastor, Dawson originally determined to follow in his father’s footsteps. He received his degree from the Oberlin Theological Seminary and became a Congregationalist minister. Yet he was increasingly drawn to another field for his life’s work, that of natural science, specifically the study of birds.

Even while ministering in Columbus, Ohio, he engaged in this new passion, the result being the publication of The Birds of Ohio in 1903. A few years later, he moved to Seattle, his pastoral duties abandoned in favor of a full-time career as an ornithologist. While in the Pacific Northwest, he produced The Birds of Washington in 1909.

By 1912, Dawson had settled in Santa Barbara, in a home on Puesta del Sol he christened Los Colibris, The Hummingbirds. He had two dreams: to pen a massive tome on California birds and to establish an institution devoted to oology, the study of birds’ eggs. Gathering a cadre of supporters at his home, in January 1916 the Museum of Comparative Oology was born, to be housed in two small buildings on Dawson’s property, the core of the collection to be Dawson’s own impressive array of birds’ eggs.

Dawson was tasked to raise $10,000 to cover museum operations for three years and publication costs of his California bird book. Things did not go well. The book was not immediately forthcoming, and operational costs soon far exceeded the original $10,000.

The general public did not take to the idea of a museum devoted primarily to birds’ eggs, and Dawson stubbornly refused to expand the museum’s mission. At loggerheads with the board, he resigned as museum director early in 1923. The Museum of Comparative Oology soon passed into history; the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History was about to be born.

Later that year, Dawson’s magnum opus appeared, The Birds of California, four volumes, more than 2,000 pages featuring more than 100 full-page color plates. He eventually moved back to Ohio, where he died in 1928. At the time of his death, he was working on a new edition of The Birds of Ohio.

The Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History kicks off its centennial celebration this Sunday, January 24, with free admission to all and a cake cutting at 2 p.m. See sbnature.org.



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