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In Memoriam - Shirley Ann Briggs

Shirley Ann Briggs
1918-2004

PHOTO: Shirley Ann Briggs

Shirley Briggs was a colleague, close friend, and staunch advocate of Rachel Carson all her life.

Shirley Briggs, was an accomplished wildlife artist, editor, and photographer. She was also a brilliant naturalist and ornithologist. Like Rachel Carson, Shirley Briggs devoted her life to educating the public about the environment, the glories of the natural world, especially bird life, and the effects of man made chemical pesticides. She graduated from the University of Iowa with a fine arts degree, one of the last and best students of the primitivist painter, Grant Woods. Briggs had an exceptional education as the only child of one of the Universities most distinguished political scientists, she graduated summa cum laude. When World War II broke out Briggs went east with her art students and found a job as a mechanical arts illustrator for the Glenn L. Martin Co. in Baltimore, illustrating manuals for the military.

After the war, Briggs was hired as an illustrator with the newly created U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service where she met Rachel Carson and collaborated with her on a number of projects. Briggs illustrated the first of Carson’s impressive pamphlets in the “Conservation in Action” series, Chincoteaque: A National Wildlife Refuge, 1947. After Carson left government service in 1952, their friendship continued within the Audubon Society of the District of Columbia, later the Audubon Naturalist Society where both women were active. Briggs became the editor of that organizations publication, The Wood Thrush, doing much of the writing, art and photography which made it a naturalist’s treasure. She later became the editor in chief of the Atlantic Naturalist after the ANS was founded. Briggs and Carson went on many ANS outings together, including a memorable trip to Hawk Mountain, Pennsylvania to see the hawks migrate and at which Briggs took many of the best photographs of Carson. She also illustrated cartoons of Carson based on their letters to each other. One, drawn after the publication of The Sea Around Us, shows Carson as an amazon striding the ocean, came as a result of a letter to Carson from a reader who refused to believe a woman could know so much about the ocean. The cartoon, as well as a series of others done at Chintoteaque, are available at the Lear/Carson Collection.

Briggs was one of the few intimate friends who knew how ill Carson was as she battled cancer after 1960 to defend the conclusions of Silent Spring. Following Carson’s death in 1964, Briggs became the Executive Director (without pay) of the Rachel Carson Trust for the Living Environment, soon renamed The Rachel Carson Council. The organization was dedicated to continuing Carson’s work on the dangers of environmental pollution, it remains a clearing house of pesticide education and information. In addition to her work at USFWS, Briggs designed, painted, and installed the original dioramas for the Museum of Natural History. From 1970 to 1992 Briggs worked tirelessly at the Rachel Carson Council to encourage enlightened conservation measures. Her work culminated in the publication of The Basic Guide to Pesticides, (1992), a scholarly, scientific, an exhaustively researched study of hundreds of chemicals used in agriculture, forestry, industry and gardening.

Briggs received numerous honors from the Audubon Naturalist Society, the Environmental Protection Agency, the University of California, and the University of Iowa. She had a wide society of environmental, ornithological, artistic, and scientific friends. For nearly 40 years Briggs taught a popular course on US Conservation Philosophy in the US Department of Agriculture’s graduate school.

Shirley Briggs died 11 November 2004 near her home in Bethesda, Maryland. She is buried in a family plot in Iowa City, IA. Her photographs, drawings, letters, papers and diaries are available at the University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa Women’s Archives. A collection of The Wood Thrush and the Audubon Naturalist is at the Smithsonian Institution Archives. Papers related to Briggs’s friendship with Rachel Carson is at the Lear/Carson Collection at the Linda Lear Center for Special Collections and Archives at Connecticut College.

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