Saturday, February 21, 2015

Veteran scientist #20, George Miksch Sutton

Major George Miksch Sutton (1898-1982)

US Army Air Corps 1942-1945.  Ornithologist and artist.

A familiar name here at the University of Oklahoma, George Miksch Sutton was an accomplished ornithologist, artist and writer.  He was also a soldier.

Sutton grew up around the US—in Minnesota, Nebraska, Oregon, Illinois, Texas and West Virginia.  At a young age he developed an interest in observing and drawing birds.  He published his first artwork at age 12 and his first scientific observations at age 16.

As a 20 year old, while a student at Bethany College in West Virginia, Sutton began working on the side at the Carnegie Museum, preparing bird specimens and going on collecting expeditions.  The work took him on several expeditions to far northern Canada.  It was Sutton’s first taste of the Arctic, a region that would loom large over the rest of his life, rivaled in importance perhaps only by Oklahoma.

Sutton stayed in the region after graduating, working as the Pennsylvania State Ornithologist for four years.  Then, in 1929, he quit his state job and entered grad school at Cornell.  He spent the first year of his Ph.D. program, predictably, in the Arctic, this time for an entire year on Southampton Island at the north end of the Hudson Bay.  After getting his doctorate Sutton stayed at Cornell to become the Curator of Birds, doing fieldwork in Texas, Mexico, Michigan, and, of course, back in the Arctic.

When World War Two broke out a few years later, Sutton, then in his 40s, struggled to find a way to enlist in the military and contribute to the war effort.

Meanwhile, the Allied forces had lost many pilots to the harsh Arctic climate.  Pilots of the time who crash-landed in high latitude regions had inadequate training or gear to survive long enough to be rescued.   Going down in the far north was almost always a death sentence.

Recognizing Sutton’s extensive experience in far northern Canada, the US Army Air Corps finally agreed to take him on.  In 1942 he left for Officer Training in Florida and was commissioned as a Captain in May 1943.  Captain Sutton was then assigned to the Army Air Forces Arctic, Desert and Tropic Information Center in Minneapolis.  His job was to produce gear and training to help downed Arctic pilots.

One of his first tasks took him to Hollywood, where he worked with actors to write and produce a training film for pilots—How to Survive in the Arctic.  His work then took him to Manhattan and then Wright-Patterson Air Base in Dayton, Ohio.  There he contributed to a book the Army was preparing about life in the Arctic.  At the same time, he even got to fly north to help with a few real life rescue missions.

In the fall of 1944 Sutton was sent south to Orlando, where he developed a friendship with another veteran scientist, ornithologist and painter, Sergeant Roger Tory Peterson.  Sutton and Peterson would work and bird watch together on and off over the next year.

In early 1945 the Army sent Sutton north yet again, this time to Fairbanks, Alaska for a couple months to field test sleeping bags and snowshoes.  From there he went to Attu Island in the western Aleutians to test life rafts in the Bering Sea.

Throughout all this fieldwork Sutton continued observing birds, creating art, and collecting specimens on the side.  He published several scientific papers and magazine articles while on active duty, as well as editing Audubon Magazine.

For one of his last assignments, the army paired Sutton up with Sergeant Peterson to perform a short DDT experiment in Florida, examining the effects of the new pesticide on birds.

And then, that summer of 1945, the war ended.  Sutton, by then a Major, was discharged shortly therafter.

He worked at the University of Michigan for a few years, but struggled to find his new place in the world.  Then, in the summer of 1951 he taught a field course at the new University of Oklahoma Biological Station in southeast Oklahoma, the very same field station where I did my purple martin work last summer.  He, like many of us, fell in love with Oklahoma and a year later became a professor at OU.  He would spend the rest of his life here.

Though now a permanent southerner, he didn’t forget about the far north.  In 1958 he spent the summer in Iceland observing and painting birds, and published a book based on the experience.  The Icelandic government knighted Sutton for his work depicting and popularizing the country’s landscapes and bird life.

When he died many years later, Sutton’s ashes, according to his wishes, were scattered over Black Mesa at the western tip of the Oklahoma Panhandle.

Today George Sutton is a minor celebrity here at OU.  The building where I work is named after him, there’s a bust of him outside my office, there’s a successful Avian Research Center named after him in northeast Oklahoma, and scholarships in his name go to students every year for both artwork and ornithology research.

He was a great example of how there are many ways to be in the military, and to be a scientist, or both.

—George Miksch Sutton: Artist, Scientist, and Teacher. 2007. Jerome A. Jackson.

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