In Memoriam - Shirley Ann Briggs
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.