The following is excerpted from “Changing the World: Clark University’s Pioneering People, 1887–2000” (Chandler House Press, 2005), by former president Richard P. Traina.
Long before she became a graduate student at Clark University, Margaret Morse Nice found her destiny.
When she was only nine years old, she was taking notes on wild birds. Yet, it was not until a beautiful August day in 1919, at age 35, while on a long walk, that she resolved to return to her childhood “vision of studying nature and trying to protect the wild things of the earth.” She pursued that vision through the elaborate, precise and imaginative study of birds, becoming one of the world’s leading ornithologists. Yet, the implications of her dedicated work went beyond understanding the behavior of birds. Konrad Loren, often recognized as the father of ethology, the science of animal behavior, said that “Margaret Morse Nice was the real founder of ethology,” adding that “she has been followed by many students of animal behavior.” For the last half century of her long life, she was also intellectually and emotionally committed to ecological and conversation causes,
Nice was born Margaret Morse, in Amherst, Massachusetts, in December 1883. Her father was a history professor at Amherst College and her mother a housewife who had gradated from Mount Holyoke College with a major in botany. Both were avid gardeners and loved nature and the wilderness. Nice was an exceptional student who inherited the intellectual discipline and fondness for nature evident in her larger family life. She also developed during childhood the habits of note-taking and diary-keeping. She too graduated from Mount Holyoke in 1906, having studied German, French, Italian and Latin and taken several courses in the sciences. Both endeavors ultimately proved to be important.
During her years in the Amherst area, there were two omens respecting Clark University that Nice recorded. The first occurred on her fifteenth birthday. She attended an Amherst College lecture by G. Stanley Hall on “Love and Study of Nature,” and that evening she quoted the Clark president in her diary: “Nature is the backbone of all education. Love is the great principle of nature and life.” Almost nine years later, while attending a Massachusetts Agricultural College summer school in Amherst, she heard Clark Professor Clifton Hodge, later of Worcester fly-killing fame, lecture on studying live animals. She engaged Hodge in conversation, and he stoked her ambition for graduate study. Her parents had been discouraging her from any aspiration beyond housewifery, but on the morning of August 17, 1907, she found a note from her father on the kitchen table: “I am verging to the conclusion that in view of all your talents, proclivities, likings and dislikings and accomplishments, it may be advisable for you to specialize in the field of Biology with the purpose of teaching and writing.” She promptly applied to Clark University for admission to the graduate program in Biology. With enthusiastic recommendations from Mount Holyoke faculty, Nice was awarded a graduate scholarship at Clark.
Nice’s reaction to the University was prompt and enduring: “It was at Clark university that I found a purpose in life. Dr. Hodge, Dr. Hall, and my fellow students showed me that the world was full of problems crying to be solved; at every turn there was a challenge — nature waiting to be studied and understood. …. Clark University gave me my first awakening. I had found my goal.” And, imbued with the most democratic spirit, [Clark] was a haven from the hurried, worried materialistic world, a place where truth could be pursued in freedom. It was the friendliest place I ever encountered.” Under Hodge’s tutelage, she undertook an excruciatingly derailed study of the bobwhite (or quail), one that in 1910 became her first, and controversial, publication. But, the pursuit of her destiny was to be interrupted, albeit by choice. In the summer of 1909, she married Leonard Blaine Nice — a fellow graduate student and undergraduate instructor at Clark. She left the University without a degree — and followed her husband with his academic career, first to Harvard, then to the universities of Oklahoma and Ohio State and finally to the University of Chicago.
Between 1910 and 1923, the Nices had five children — all daughters (although one, Eleanor, would die at age nine in 1928). Family responsibilities early inhibited Margaret’s nature studies, but not to be completely denied, she undertook a painstaking study of her own children’s language development — ultimately publishing some 18 scholarly papers in this field between 1915 and 1933. One of the early and lengthy studies was published in Hall’s journal, Pedagogical Seminary, and was subsequently used to justify the awarding by Clark in 1923 (back-dated to 1915) of a master’s degree in psychology. By that time, Nice was beginning to make a name for herself in ornithology but was facing resistance based on both gender and lack of academic credentials. The attitudinal turning point in her career has been that epiphany during the August 1919 afternoon in Oklahoma. She later wrote: “I resented the implication that my husband and the children had brains and I had none. He caught; they studied; I did housework.” Four years later, Clark University’s accommodating degree was at least somewhat helpful to her developing career as an animal behaviorist.
Over the next several decades, Nice wrote seven volumes, plus more than 250 titles on birds in scholarly journals. By her own count, she wrote 3,313 reviews and summaries, many of which she translated, of other people’s work. Her first book, co-authored with her husband, Blaine, in 1924, was The Birds of Oklahoma. Marcia Myers Banca, author of Women in the Field: America’s Pioneering Women Naturalists, indicates that Blaine “encouraged [Margaret] in all she attempted, [sometimes] took care of the girls when she was doing research, and was always happy to finance her work.” Meanwhile, her several daughters regularly assisted her with her field studies — for example, climbing trees to report on nests. Her research was often a family affair.
Margaret’s tour de force was her two-volume work on a common bird, Studies in the Life and History of the Song Sparrow. First published in Germany, because American publishers were put off by its density, it helped move the study of animal life in a new direction. Lorenz said of the book, it is “to the best of my knowledge, the first long-term field investigation of the individual life of any free-living wild animal.” David Spector, a biologist, observed that Nice “moved the study of bird life history to a new level, far beyond what anyone had done before.” Frank Graham Jr., an ornithologist, wrote: “Nice had dragged her more ‘legitimate’ colleagues out of the listing stage and into more modern behavioral studies.”
One can only imagine what kind of a personality it took to observe individual nests of birds from sunup to sundown, recording every action and sound — this for years with the same banded and “Nice-named” individual birds (for example, Uno, Una, and 4M). As Graham remarked, “Hers was a pioneering study in comparative behavior, or ethology. She wanted to find out exactly what happened in a population of birds.” The much later studies of chimpanzees by Jane Goodall and of gorillas by Dian Fossey, while less exacting and far more popularly known, had their roots in Nice’s study of sparrows.
Nice’s command of several languages enabled her to become an intellectual conduit between European and American ornithologists and behaviorists. She translated and reviewed works in several language — and there is little question that her language facility enhanced her international reputation and extended her influence. It brought her into research relationships with both Lorenz and Niko Tinbergen, both of whom would be recognized with Nobel prizes. Tinbergen described Nice as having “remarkable creative power.” In a further tribute, he labeled her “as the one who has laid the foundation for population studies now so zealously pursued.”
As Nice grew older, her commitment to ecological and conservation causes grew with her. That disposition had been present even in childhood, and as early as the 1920s she used her work on Oklahoma birds to block a move to extend the hunting season for quail. She had demonstrated that their nesting season was longer than previously believed. But as Bonta points out, Nice later “increasingly turned her attention to educating the public about conservation and nature.” She even used the newly popular radio to encourage listeners to find joy in the wonders of nature and “to raise a host of friends for wildlife — to love and protect nature.” She battled to save the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma, the Dinosaur National Monument, the redwood trees in California, and the Indian dunes. She protested against the use of herbicides and for saving the prairie reserves along railroad rights-of-way. To the end of her life at 91, her spirit was indefatigable.
A telling point is made about Nice’s accomplishments in Jean Langenheim’s “Women Ecologists”: “The fact that she never earned a Ph.D., was never a faculty member of a university, and received few or no grants and little secretarial assistant makes her achievement even more noteworthy.” She also resourcefully, perhaps brilliantly, integrated her family and professional lives. Her posthumously published autobiography was most fittingly titled, with words from a March 1919 entry in one of her notebooks, “Research ius a Passion with Me.”