Knoxville has been home to several regionally known, and at least one nationally known, naturalists, particularly in the early 20th century.
The father of “ornithology” (and probably “nature” as well) is clearly Harry Ijams, whose former farm and bird sanctuary lies at the heart Ijams Nature Center, and a crucial part of Knoxville’s expansive Urban Wilderness. Yet, there are others, some of them early explorers of the Smoky Mountains, who are less known, but still left behind a trail of books, artwork, and stories from the natural world in Knoxville and East Tennessee.
Earl O. Henry was a talented artist and naturalist who left an impressive collection of paintings, mounted bird specimens, and a remarkable audio recording imitating bird vocalizations.
During the 1930s, Henry was a regular visitor to the Smoky Mountains, and along with fellow birders, Brockway Crouch and Harry Ijams, participated in annual bird counts there. The results were share with the Smokies’ first park naturalist, Arthur Stupka, who credited Henry with the first high altitude record of a Great Horned Owl, along the Appalachian Trail between Clingman’s Dome and Siler’s Bald.
After becoming a dentist, Henry became a prolific wildlife artist during his stint in the Naval Academy. Tragically, he died on July 30, 1945, on the ill-fated USS Indianapolis, several days after the vessel delivered the uranium for the first atomic bomb used in World War II. The ship was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine and sunk within 12 minutes. Dr. Henry (one of two Knoxvillians on the ship – the other being photographer Kasey Moore)was not among the survivors.
Examples of Henry’s artwork and mounted birds are on display at Ijams Nature Center, which also has an interpretive rail named in his honor. The Earl Henry Memorial Clinic, an annual educational seminar named in his honor is hosted by Knoxville’s Second Dental District every year.