J. Eugene Law as a factor in western ornithology is the prime theme of this biography. For this is the role in which we of the Cooper Ornithological Club came to know him best -came to place high value upon his attainments and influence.
My own acquaintance with the subject of this biography began in 1897 when I received in Pasadena a postal card inquiry from "J. Eugene Law, 421 Lake, Madison Wisc.", dated February 26, for skins of juncos and marsh sparrows. Negotiations proceeded, and I sold him 6 Thurber Juncos at 20 cents each and 6 Belding Marsh Sparrows at 35 cents each; and I received for them a Money Order for $3.30. Those very skins are still in the Law collection.
I first met Gene Law in person, in 1900 at Stanford University. We had two or three brief conversations about birds, but our interests otherwise were far apart, he having majored in law, while I was a graduate student in the department of zoology. We exchanged a few letters in 1902 and 1903, chiefly concerning Cooper Club affairs. By 1904, when he was well established in banking in Hollywood, and I in teaching at Throop Polytechnic Institute in Pasadena, corresondence and visits became frequent, our common interests being the collecting and study of birds and the promotion of the welfare of the Cooper Ornithological Club.
It was in his vigorous activities in the interests of the Cooper Ornithological Club that Law rendered valuable aid to the spread of bird study in southern California. An indication of this is obtainable from the record of the offices he held, as follows: President of the Southern Division, 1905 and 1913 to 1915; vice-president, 1916 to 1917; secretary, 1906 to 1912; business manager, 1907 to 1925; president, board of governors, 1925. He became a member of the Club in 1900, a life member in 1915, and was elected to honorary membership in 1929. In connection with this latter, highest tribute to associates in the Club could give him, the following sentences were included in the formal proposal which was filed with both the Northern and the Southern Division.
A man in the scientific world can leave no more lasting record of his life's activities than in the form of published contributions to his special field of knowledge. The gauge of his accomplishments will not, however, be applied on the basis of total quantity, or of length of the individual articles, but on the basis of soundness of fact and interpretation. In the case of Gene Law, a lasting record of exactly this nature is comprised in the series of articles on published record-all of them, it is interesting to note, in our magazine, the Condor-a medium of just such permanent record. For eminent, intrinsic value I will cite certain ones among Gene Law's total of 39 titles as listed in the appended bibliography.
I have personal knowledge that Gene Law left a number of articles altogether unpublished, on his "docket" already for years, simply because he did not consider them yet to come up to his ideals. He would pass an article to print only when he could feel satisfied that he had given its subject matter adequate thought. What an example for any true scientist to emulate in this age of breathless rush to "produce"-to accumulate a "personal bibliography"!
Years ago Gene Law set for himself as a major problem, for both field and study, the working up of the vertebrate fauna of the Chiricahua Mountains, Arizona. To this end he made several trips to those mountains, for which he came to have the fondest regard; collections of birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians were gathered, extensive observations recorded upon a definite plan of faunal analysis, and critical studies of the appertaining literature made. This wealth of accumulated materials will, it is now hoped, be worked up by someone well qualified to do it justice, the resulting published monograph to be dedicated to the memory of J. Eugene Law.
There is also an importance of this historical biographical essay to the field of ecological restoration, namely of coastal wetlands. For example, the passage regarding the "Belding Marsh Sparrows" in the third paragraph of the biography is significant because this bird is considered an endangered species and fully protected by law in southern California. There is consensus amongst scientists that this species is very important to prevent from going extinct in southern California.
The restoration of coastal wetlands in Los Angeles at Ballona, Bolsa Chica in Orange County, Carpenteria in Santa Barbara County, Mugu in Ventura County, and various places in San Diego County, is driven by the requirements of the habitat for this very rare sparrow. And we see in the writing of Joseph Grinnell and by the request of John Eugene Law for acquisition of this rare sparrow a bit of understanding of history and a possibility for further research. It is important to note that the purchase of 6 Belding Marsh Sparrows by Mr. Law from Mr. Grinnell was 108 years ago in 1897. Yet, we do not know the exact day and month, nor do we know the location at which Joseph Grinnell collected these six sparrows. However, my preliminary research seems to indicate that it is likely that they were obtained from salt marshes in the San Pedro area near the mouth of the Los Angeles River. Of course, there is currently no habitat and consequently no Belding Marsh Sparrows at San Pedro. Thus far, I have not been able to document that Joseph Grinnell visited the Ballona salt marsh, which is another location where the Beldings Marsh Sparrow occurred in 1897, but it is a very remote possibility that he obtained them there. Nonetheless, according to Grinnell's own writing, these specimens are likely still in the John Eugene Law Collection. I have discovered during my research in September, 2005, that these 6 sparrows are at a museum on the campus of a university in the state of Virginia. A visit is needed to this museum to see these six sparrows and the labels on the birds.
It is fitting that Joseph Grinnell wrote about John Eugene Law. Both of these great naturalists, Grinnell and Law have passed away. Law died in 1932 and Grinnell in 1939. So it goes that great naturalists, vertebrate zoologists, and scientists have passed away, out of mind, and almost out of our southern California knowledge of geography and history.
Have all the classical naturalists died and gone away? Who will do their kind of natural history and descriptive ecology in the future?
Does any birder or birdwatcher living today, in 2005, recognize the great explorations of more than 100 years ago by early bird-naturalists?