Henry Chandler Cowles
Helped Give Birth to a New Science
Class of 2004
As a highly respected professor at the University of Chicago, Henry Chandler Cowles (1869 - 1939) was one of the first to recognize the importance of the biodiversity at the Indiana Dunes. His studies of how and why plant communities develop made him one of America’s most extraordinary and influential early ecologists. Henry Chandler Cowles was born in Kensington, Conn. It was here that his love for nature began. He became fascinated with nature, especially plants and trees during walks with his mother. In 1895, he went on to graduate school at the University of Chicago to study geology, and later botany.
He first traveled to the dunes in 1896. He was fascinated by its vegetation and its natural and evolving environment. He spent the next couple of years studying the plants’ complex interaction within the dunes. Through his studies of plant succession among the dunes, Cowles helped develop ecology as a science.
His findings were published in “The Ecological Relations of the Vegetation on the Sand Dunes of Lake Michigan” in 1899. This article brought international attention and established Cowles as the “Father of Ecology in North America.”
As a botany professor at the University of Chicago, Cowles led many outdoor field trips. It was central to Cowles’ teaching, and he made field study a necessary part of his ecology classes. Various trips led his students through the dunes of Lake Michigan, and throughout the United States. During his studies, Cowles observed the careless destruction of the environment and became an active conservationist. Working through several organizations, he helped protect forests and their resources in Illinois. In 1915, he formed the Ecological Society of America to help protect wilderness areas.
In 1934, he retired from the University of Chicago. For many years he studied the dunes and as a result, an area he frequented was named in his honor, Cowles Bog. It is preserved for the public as part of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.