Knoxville has been home to several regionally known naturalists (and at least one nationally) particularly in the early 20th century. They left behind conservation legacies, books, artwork, and also stories from the natural world in and around Knoxville and East Tennessee.
A few of Knoxville’s ornithologists, including Harry Ijams and Earl Henry, are featured in Danny Shelton’s remarkable full-length documentary, A Century of Birds, a history of the Tennessee Ornithology Society.
EARL O. HENRY (1911-1945 )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.
JAMES T. TANNER (1914-1991) was born in Homer, New York, and grew up as a woodsman and a keen naturalist, even caring for, and rehabilitating, an injured golden eagle in his youth.
Tanner, not quite 21, was chosen as a star undergraduate student at Cornell University to join a small group led by Arthur Allen, the founder of Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology, to embark on an ambitious expedition across the country to record birds in numerous states, as well as determine if one particular species was still alive – the rare and illusive ivory-billed woodpecker. The group found the bird deep in the northern swamps of Louisiana in the spring of 1935.
Tanner was awarded a three-year Audubon Society Fellowship to study the ivory-bill, determine its extant range, and propose conservation plans to save the species. Tanner became the first and only ornithologist known to have ever banded an ivory-bill in 1937. Tanner expanded his PhD thesis into the first book on the ivory-billed woodpecker in 1942, still considered a bible on the species.
In 1940, Tanner moved to Tennessee to become a teacher at East Tennessee State University and later became a professor of zoology in Knoxville at the University of Tennessee where he served the majority of his career. He was a leading member of the Knoxville Chapter of the Tennessee Ornithological Society, and active with numerous conservation organizations and projects until his death in 1991.
In the northeast corner of St. John’s Cathedral’s inner courtyard (at the corner of Cumberland and Walnut in downtown Knoxville), by the small pond, is a memorial plaque dedicated to Jim Tanner, built with a donation by his widow, Nancy. Both of the Tanner’s are still fondly remembered for their wit, professionalism, and friendship.
Prof. Harry Milliken Jennison (1885-1940) was born and schooled in Massachusetts before moving to Knoxville in 1923 to become a Professor of Botany at the University of Tennessee. During the summers between 1923 and 1927 he served as a U.S. Plant Agent as a scientist “battling the recurring grasshopper hordes” across the western plains.
Locally, Jennison was known as a jovial but dedicated botanist both in Knoxville and the Great Smoky Mountains before it became a national park. He is credited with the discovery of several native flowers in the mountains including a new variety of azalea on Gregory’s Bald. He was hired part-time as a wildlife technician for the Great Smokey Mountains National Park and later as a ranger-naturalist with Arthur Stupka, the park’s official naturalist.
Upon Jennison’s sudden death from a heart attack in 1940, Harry Ijams described him thus: “He knew as much about the plant life in the mountains as anyone around here.”
HARRY IJAMS (1876-1954), whose former farm and bird sanctuary lies at the heart Ijams Nature Center, and a crucial part of Knoxville’s expansive Urban Wilderness, might be considered the local “father of ornithology” and nature too.
A trained commercial artist, Ijams was an early explorer of the Smoky Mountains and a supporter of the National Conservation Exposition held at Chilhowee Park in Knoxville in 1913. His involvement with the East Tennessee Audubon Society led to the creation of a loosely 1,000-acre bird preservation in South Knoxville during the early 1920s, and several years later co-founded the enduring East Tennessee Ornithological Society (now KTOS).
Ijams shared his artistic skills to help promote the Great Smoky Mountains National Park through posters and maps, and was also renowned as a regional naturalist before the park’s official naturalist, Arthur Stupka, was hired by the park service in the 1930s.
ALICE IJAMS (1880-1964), wife of Harry Ijams, was born into a prominent family from Jefferson County, Alice’s father, John Williams Yoe was a lawyer, and Mayor of West Knoxville from 1882 until his death in 1895. West Knoxville was incorporated in “Greater Knoxville” in 1898. Her sister, Della Yoe, wrote and co-produced a documentary, These Are Our Lives, about Depression-era poverty in the United States.
Alice was a renowned horticulturalist and naturalist in her own right, specializing on wildflowers and native plantings. In the early 1920s, Alice acquired a nursery and established Southside Greenhouses at the family farm where she cultivated native plants and sold them to Crouch Florists (run
by friend Brockway Crouch) and through
traders in the downtown Market Hall.
A longstanding member of the Knoxville Garden Club and the Knox County Council of Garden Clubs, Alive served as President for both organizations over the years as was regarded as “a walking encyclopedia of garden clubs” as well as organizing the women’s exhibits at the annual Tennessee Valley Fair held at Chilhowee Park. She also served as an ambassador for the Knoxville Girl Scout Council and helped form Camp Margaret Townsend for Girl Scouts in the Smoky Mountains (now the location of Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont).
Several local naturalists, including Paul J. Adams, Carlos Campbell, and Brockway Crouch, can be found in the Smoky Mountain Explorers section because they are better known for their Smoky Mountain adventures.