The Early Years: 1901-1928
By Karen Lloyd
Edward Gordon Alexander (1901-1973) was born on August 18 in Rich Hill, Missouri. Rich Hill was a small rural town on the Western border with Kansas, where nothing much happened except for the daily struggle of working the fields. Coincidentally, the year in which Edward Gordon was born, was the same year in which Theodore Roosevelt became President of the United States of America. Both would embrace the natural history and the preservation of the West.
The Missouri river offered many opportunities for Gordon to study and observe the natural surroundings of his youth, and fortuitously, his family resettled in a variety of towns and cities along the river, including Kansas City, Kansas and Lexington Missouri. At the age of sixteen, Gordon wrote in his journal about the impending move to Lexington, "It is on the Missouri River and there are many limestone bluffs where I trust I can get a number of Carboniferous fossils."
When Gordon was a young bird watcher, binoculars were not of the quality they are today. He would often take his lunch, climb a tree, and sit for hours waiting for birds to come to him. His egg collecting took considerable skill and often eggs were removed at a time when the female could deposit more eggs. Later on in life, Gordon was apologetic about his teenage collecting activities. Attitudes toward shooting birds and collecting eggs changed greatly over his lifetime.
Gordon's love for natural history encompassed all aspects of study; birds, eggs, nests, insects, plants, geology and paleontology: He was a true naturalist. He would tramp across the floodplains of the Missouri, observing bird migration and feeding habits. Gordon would also sketch insects and plants in their natural surroundings. His skill for careful, patient and thorough observations would remain with him throughout his career and life.
One can only wonder how his parents viewed Gordon's passion for natural history and science. According to Gordon's daughter Anne, they were concerned about whether this was an effective way to make a living. Did their religious beliefs clash with science and evolution? Were they supportive of his interests in natural history? Did they have other plans for Gordon, as did the parents of another great naturalist Charles Darwin? Unfortunately, we will never know the answers to these questions, but we do know that Gordon was serious and committed to natural history. It was clear to Gordon that he wanted to spend the rest of his life studying science and natural history.
During the summer of 1919, before Gordon attended Central Methodist University in Fayette, Missouri, Gordon contacted the Stephens Natural History Museum at the college to see if they would store, and share with others, his egg collection. Some of the eggs Gordon collected had been exchanged for specimens from other parts of North America. He also purchased eggs. This resulted in a total collection that represented 75-80 North American species.
In 1921, Gordon spent the summer on the collecting crew at the Marine Biological Laboratory, Woods Hole, Massachusetts. In his spare time, Gordon returned to his love of observing the natural history around him. His comparative study, The Summer Birds of Cape Cod and Missouri (publications link), detailed the difference in variety and abundance of the bird fauna that he observed during the summer months. This article, published in 1923, was the first to be published under his name; Gordon Alexander.
Gordon's first trip to the University of Colorado in Boulder was in the summer of 1923, where Gordon and Marion Isely attended the summer school program. The mountains, plains and glaciers of the Rocky Mountain region were to leave a profound impression on him, and this shaped the course of his and Marion's life. One of their fondest memories of the visit was sliding down the Arapahoe Glacier together. Their return to Boulder in 1931, as husband and wife, was merely a continuation of the love affair with the region.
In the fall of 1923, Gordon was accepted into the graduate program at Princeton University, in New Jersey, to study Biology. By this time, Gordon's interest in science was expanding, and he had begun to read articles and books published outside of the United States. For example, in an article published in 1925 (publications link), Gordon referenced a translation and critique of Aristotle by the French national archivist and Republican Armand Gaston Camus, in 1783. The translation was in French and Greek: An indication, perhaps, that Gordon was learning and reading French.
Between the years 1924 and 1926, Gordon continued his studies at Princeton with the help of the Francis Hinton Maule Fellowship, which he received for this time period. In September 1926 Gordon and Marion married and Gordon returned to his old alma mater, Central College in Missouri, to become an instructor of biology. Marion was also a trained biologist with a Masters Degree from the University of Missouri.
Gordon continued with his research on his doctoral dissertation, The Significance of Hydrogen Ion Concentration in the Biology of Euglena Gracilis Klebs (publications link), and intended to return to Princeton a couple of years later. However, fate was to intervene, and Gordon and Marion found their life taking a dramatically different route than the one they had planned.
In 1928 Gordon received a telegram from Princeton asking him if he would be willing to travel to Siam on a Rockefeller Scholarship to teach biology at Chulalongkorn Univeristy in Bangkok for two years. He agreed, and Gordon and Marion were soon traveling to British Columbia to catch the ship that would take them to Siam.