Montana's Pioneer Naturalist: Morton J. Elrod

Montana's Pioneer Naturalist: Morton J. Elrod

by George M. Dennison

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A naturalist on Montana’s academic frontier, passionate conservationist Morton J. Elrod was instrumental in establishing the Department of Biology at the University of Montana, as well as Glacier National Park and the National Bison Range. In Montana’s Pioneer Naturalist, the first in-depth assessment of Elrod’s career, George M. Dennison reveals how one man helped to shape the scholarly study of nature and its institutionalization in the West at the turn of the century.

Elrod moved to Missoula in 1897, just four years after the state university’s founding, and participated in virtually every aspect of university life for almost forty years. To reveal the depths of this pioneer scientist’s influence on the growth of his university, his state, and the academic fields he worked in, author George M. Dennison delves into state and university archives, including Elrod’s personal papers. Although Elrod was an active participant in bison conservation and the growth of the National Park Naturalist Service, much of his work focused on Flathead Lake, where he surveyed local life forms and initiated the university’s biological station—one of the first of its kind in the United States. Yet at heart Elrod was an educator who desired to foster in his students a “love of nature,” which, he said, “should give health to any one, and supply knowledge of greatest value, either to the individual or to society, or to both.”

In this biography of a prominent scientist now almost forgotten, Dennison—longtime president of the University of Montana—demonstrates how Elrod’s scholarship and philosophy regarding science and nature made him one of Montana’s most distinguished naturalists, conservationists, and educators.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806156293
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 09/21/2016
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 280
File size: 10 MB

Read an Excerpt

Montana's Pioneer Naturalist

Morton J. Elrod

By George M. Dennison


Copyright © 2016 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-5629-3


A University, a Biological Station, and a Bison Range

Elrod accepted the challenge to build a biology department at The University of Montana even though he had only a decade of experience in a private, parochial, and well-funded university. After earning his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1887, he secured his first university faculty position and moved quickly through the ranks, from assistant instructor of biology in 1888 with a Bachelor of Arts degree, reflecting a broad focus in the liberal arts and sciences, to assistant professor of natural science in 1889. He received his Master of Arts degree in 1890 and became professor of biology and physics in 1891. In 1896, he accepted appointment as professor and chairman of the department of biology at Montana, and received his Master of Science degree in 1898, with little if any additional didactic work. To earn the PhD, he fulfilled the reading, laboratory, and examination requirements of the first external degree program offered in the United States, and, with no further formal course work, prepared and submitted a dissertation accepted by Illinois Wesleyan University to receive the degree in 1905.

Elrod's access to the doctorate followed a route unusual in both the United States and Europe. By way of comparison, Albert Einstein submitted in 1905 one of four papers he had recently written as his dissertation to receive his doctorate from the University of Zurich in Switzerland, after an earlier submission was rejected in 1901. Einstein's dissertation on the size of molecules and his other work changed the world of science. On the other hand, Elrod pragmatically identified and classified the butterflies of Montana and included photographs and illustrations based on fieldwork in Montana between 1897 and 1898 and on analyses of existing collections. While not revolutionary in its impact, his work has withstood the test of time. With dedication and effort, Elrod sought and obtained the degrees he found useful in the work and positions he undertook, a familiar pattern during his lifetime and even in the twenty-first century.

In that regard, most of Elrod's colleagues at the new university on the frontier never bothered to obtain advanced degrees, since they primarily taught courses for the university prep school or for undergraduate students, as Elrod did. Although The University of Montana awarded its first graduate degree — the Master of Science — to Earl Douglass in 1899, graduate education claimed little attention until well after Elrod retired. In fact, by 1942 the state university had conferred only 256 master's degrees and no doctorates, with education degrees accounting for the largest number (75). Elrod's close friend and colleague, professor and chairman of the chemistry department William Draper Harkins, followed nearly the same pattern. However, Harkins skipped the master's degree and took leave without pay from Montana for at least two terms in residence prior to completing the doctorate in chemistry at Stanford University, awarded eight years after he came to Montana as professor and chairman with a BS degree. Harkins produced a dissertation that reported the chemical analyses he and his mentor conducted under contract to demonstrate the effects of smelter smoke on livestock in the Deer Lodge Valley.

As a faculty member, Elrod engaged in a diverse array of activities beyond his heavy instructional and other university assignments, activities that varied with circumstances and opportunities and broadened his experience and knowledge of the world around him. At different times, his activities reflected his dedicated interest in science and nature, his entrepreneurial efforts to increase his income through congenial work, or his passionate concern for the conditions and challenges in higher education. As a naturalist-educator, he found ways to remain engaged and active while always alert to the main objective. He typically exhibited a strong sense of community responsibility as well as self-confidence, which drove him to engage in projects he judged of immediate social and personal benefit, although he rarely ventured into political activism. Even while pursuing his own interests, he took seriously the obligations of a committed citizen and dedicated himself to fulfilling them. He often described himself as utterly honest and reliable, possessed of no little talent, willing to work hard for the attainment of valued goals, and committed to the best interests of the university, Missoula, and Montana, and his friends agreed with that assessment. Yet others were offended by the way he argued his opinions about the need for high standards, his tendency toward self-righteousness, and his frequent lapses of discretion when engaged in discussion. In fact, his obdurate stands on principle nearly cost him his university position.


Elrod's work in the biology department began in February 1897 with gratifying results, according to President Oscar J. Craig, with whom he had a good and respectful relationship. As did many after him, James M. Hamilton credited Craig with building the university from scratch, devising ways to initiate instruction in 1895 without adequate state support, and financing the construction of the first facilities on the barren tract of land that became the site for the state university. The university's charter authorized a preparatory department because of the paucity of accredited high schools in the state, and Elrod strongly supported Craig in working with the public high schools. To that end, he provided staff support for the State Board of Education special committee (composed of J. M. Hamilton, J. W. Kleck, Oscar J. Craig, and D. W. Sanders) charged to design the curricula required for high school accreditation. Nonetheless, differences between the two men about policy matters soon surfaced.

Craig's initial plan for high school accreditation included three curricula — classical, science, and English — and schools meeting the requirements of one or all three earned accreditation by the state board, thereby assuring their graduates admission to the university without examinations. Elrod objected, convinced that the abandonment of admission examinations lowered academic standards because it allowed high schools to decide who got admitted by certifying their graduates. He thought the prep school already opened the campus to unprepared and unmotivated students, though he understood the reason for it. Making matters even worse, the faculty of the university voted to accept any course offered by an accredited high school. Elrod fumed that this irresponsible action, approved by Craig, exacerbated the originally flawed approach.

This disagreement in principle soon transformed Elrod into an outspoken advocate for the elimination of the prep school and the maintenance of university admission examinations. With rising frustration, he waited impatiently for the closure of the prep school. As a solution to the problem of unprepared students, Elrod advocated standardized admission examinations by an external agency, such as the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) or American College Test (ACT) then in development. He ultimately endorsed physical and mental examinations to establish individual ability and to require a program of study tailored to assure academic success: "No one has a right to ask or expect more, and the discovery of ability must be possible, no matter what may be the objection or protest."

Undeterred, President Craig subsequently added a fourth approved high school curriculum for prospective business students, offering one more route to admission without examination. In addition, he obtained board reconfirmation of the accreditation and admission processes, and recommended a high school board to consist of the four institutional presidents and the state superintendent of schools. The new board would monitor the high schools through an inspector it appointed. But the state board rejected this recommendation, so Craig, as university president, continued to serve as inspector of high schools until the state board later assigned that responsibility to the state superintendent of schools.

Nonetheless, in 1907 Elrod agreed when Craig stridently condemned the state legislature's refusal to authorize State Board of Education certification for those university graduates seeking to become public school teachers. Both men regarded this refusal as a serious error damaging to public education in the state. Apparently Elrod thought universities more principled and reliable in the certification of their graduates than high schools. Despite this temporary setback, Craig's commitment to the public schools continued undiminished.

Never willing to compromise on principle, Elrod's disdain for unmotivated and underprepared students soon generated public differences with the president. His rather cryptic comment in 1905 to Emma about receiving his doctorate hinted at a deteriorating relationship with Craig: "Did I tell you I got my degree diploma before leaving home? I did not tell the prexy, don't intend to until next catalogue time. He would not appreciate it."

As a further source of irritation to the president, Elrod persisted in placing orders for equipment and supplies directly with vendors, ignoring the president as the university purchasing agent. Disgusted by Elrod's insubordination, Craig threatened vendors with nonpayment for violation of university rules.

An annoying incident in 1898 sparked by Elrod's first report on the Biological Station, the comment about the dissertation, and the trouble with vendors signaled that Elrod, and perhaps his colleagues as well, soon developed a strained relationship with President Craig. Although he authorized the constitution and bylaws drafted by a committee — with Elrod as a member — that permitted limited faculty involvement in governance, Craig presided in the manner of the old-time college president, according little more than gratuitous condescension to faculty opinion. Professor William Aber, a member of the founding faculty, commented that the president's sensitivity about his dignity and executive prerogatives made open discussion of serious issues nearly impossible. However, this deteriorating relationship remained beneath the surface until it erupted in 1908, nearly causing disaster for Elrod.


Founding president Oscar John Craig built a campus from nothing, with virtually no state-appropriated funds and in the face of persistent public criticism for trying to support four separate campuses rather than just one. In response, Craig argued passionately that "the course of Higher Education demands not so much consolidation of schools and colleges as their proper adjustment. Let each be employed in its own work ... within the limits set by the statute." He saw no need to consolidate the separate campuses if his colleagues heeded his counsel. To that end, he pledged to manage the university as a business proposition to achieve desired results. On various occasions, he pleaded for a stable fiscal policy, one not subject to abrupt change, to assure permanent support for the university. Under such an arrangement, he committed the university to prepare Montanans for positions of honor and trust. Unquestionably, an annual budget of $20,600 failed that criterion miserably. His lack of success in securing the resources necessary to support Elrod's persistent requests inevitably tested their relationship and darkened the president's mood. Oblivious to the signals that others perceived, Elrod continued to press for his priorities.

Compounding his negativism, Elrod soon found that managing prep school students and regularly admitted undergraduates in the same room exacerbated the usual challenges of teaching. His instructional assignments at Illinois Wesleyan had provided no experiential foundation for him. Space, equipment, and personnel constraints further frustrated his efforts. He finally persuaded the president to acquire some new scientific equipment that helped immensely, as did the student field trips to Mount Sentinel and to Rattlesnake, Pattee, and Hellgate Canyons. Department research and investigations by the students also improved markedly in quality. Elrod and other scholars launched studies during these early years at the Biological Station at Flathead Lake that Elrod founded for research purposes in 1898. At the same time, he began to urge a school of forestry within the biology department, identifying the Biological Station and the O'Brien mill near Somers as ideal sites to train students to manage timber production, manufacture lumber, and pickle railroad ties. He thought a forestry school offered a way to strengthen and diversify the department's work while at the same time responding to the state's need to manage its renewable resources. He anticipated rapid development of the timber industry in Montana, sooner rather than later, because he doubted the sustainability of forests in the East under the current harvesting regimen, an accurate prediction.

The university enjoyed steady but moderate growth in enrollments and took incremental if small steps to provide needed facilities. President Craig reported campus enrollments of 347 students in 1902, up to 393 by 1907. In 1902, the state board issued bonds to construct a residence hall on campus for females and a gymnasium for physical education and recreation. Craig and most of the faculty considered residence halls for men superfluous, an anachronism left by former military schools. Some of the funds also went to repair fire damage to Science Hall, constructed a year earlier.

As the final construction projects during his tenure, President Craig secured authorization for a university library and for renovation of the heating plant in 1907. Thereafter, declining state revenues and the advent of World War I delayed most new construction until after 1920, when the voters approved a new funding approach for public higher education. However, Representative Joseph M. Dixon and Senator Paris Gibson secured a federal grant of 480 acres on Mount Sentinel for an astronomy observatory (unfortunately never completed), and President Craig persuaded the Northern Pacific Railroad to release its claim to an adjoining forty acres east of campus. In addition, the president planned and executed the construction of athletic fields in the northeast sector of the campus, funded with fee revenue, a project that enhanced intercollegiate athletics but introduced new conflicts over the role of athletics. While he supported intercollegiate athletics, Elrod never understood allowing auxiliary projects to preempt academic facilities.

Even though by 1902 a majority of the entering students each year qualified for collegiate admission, Craig steadfastly continued the prep school. He valued it not only because of the need for enrollments and fee revenue but also because it assured access for more Montanans while at the same time providing a model for emulation by the public schools. Quoting the president of Cornell University, he agreed that "no community can long maintain a system of common schools worthy of the name without a college or university above." Clinging fiercely to that vision, he alienated an increasing number of the faculty who shared Elrod's views. In Craig's opinion, however, "The influence of the University in strengthening and unifying the public school system of Montana has been very marked and is becoming more and more apparent."

Claiming sufficient progress in 1905, Craig finally recommended the closure of the prep school to occur over three years after 1908, with admissions and instruction reduced by one third annually. At the same time, he expressed great pride in his accomplishments and asserted that "in no case is the influence of the University upon the schools arrogant or dictatorial. It partakes rather of the spirit of the new ethics which emphasizes the obligation of the strong to help the weak, of the higher to the lower." Craig's commitment to noblesse oblige struck Elrod as little more than an abject abandonment of academic standards. Critically, he openly expressed his views with increasing intensity.


Excerpted from Montana's Pioneer Naturalist by George M. Dennison. Copyright © 2016 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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