Stearns, Winfrid Alden, 1852-1909

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Winfrid Alden Stearns (1852-1909) was an amateur naturalist, ornithologist, and ethnologist who corresponded with several prominent experts in the natural sciences. Among his works were a collaboration with surgeon and naturalist Elliot Coues, New England Bird Life (1881-1883) and the self-published A Manual of Ornithology (1895) that was heavily criticized by university-trained naturalists.

Stearns was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts to William Augustus Stearns and Rebecca Alden Frazar Stearns. Stearn's father (1805 - 1876) was the fourth president of Amherst College, serving from 1854 to 1876. A graduate of Andover Theological Seminary in 1831, William Stearns also had a law degree, received in 1862. He was a descendant of Isaac Stearns, who arrived in America with Governor Winthrop in 1630, and a member of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

Winfrid Stearns's mother died when he was a young boy, shortly after the family's move to Amherst. Stearns was one of six children; he had two brothers and three sisters. His sisters married in their father's faith to other ministers, but Winfrid and his brothers eschewed the religion of their parents.

The oldest brother, William French Stearns (1834-1874), became a business owner, trader, and traveler. Among William French's friends and acquaintances was the African explorer and humanitarian Dr. David Livingstone. William French delivered mail from Livingstone to the New York Herald, and appeared in the reporting of the Livingstone - Stanley controversy.

Winfred's other brother; Frazar Augustus Stearns (1840-1862), was killed in battle at New Bern, March 14th, 1862 in the Civil War.

Winfrid Stearns graduated from Amherst College in 1876, the year of his father's death. Stearns was cited by his college fraternity as having been variously a manager of The Salem Press, an author, connected for three years with the scientific department of Massachusetts State Agriculture College (also in Amherst) and as curator of its Agricultural Museum. Stearns was employed as a compositor (typesetter) by the F. W. Putnam & Co. publishing in 1879. He later was a compositor at Riverside Press in Cambridge, continuing to work there after obtaining the position of curator at Massachusetts Agricultural College in Cambridge in 1886.

Stearns was fascinated with natural science from a young age. Noted as a boy for having several collections of birds eggs and a printing press, Stearns published a juvenile newspaper entitled The Young American in the attic of the family house during the 1860's. During his college years, he collected specimens of local fauna. He also began to correspond with noted professionals such as Spencer Fullerton Baird, then the Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. Stearns supplemented his income following college by collecting and shipping specimens to museums and other institutions, including the Smithsonian.

Stearn's career following college was a long search for professional acceptance. Stearns planned to begin publishing his works before graduation from Amherst, but lack of funds and of support from the academic community delayed the publication of his first book, New England Bird Life, until 1881. Stearns belonged to some of the first ornithological organizations in America, such as the Nuttall Ornithological Club and the American Ornithologists' Union. Much of the correspondence in the collection relates in some way to these two organizations. Stearns was essentially a gifted amateur. Althouh his work was often heavily criticized for its lack of authenticity, veracity, and professionalism, at least one title Labrador; A Sketch of its Peoples, Its Industries and Its Natural History, was deemed sufficiently acceptable to be reviewed by leading popular periodicals of the time, including The Nation and The Saturday Evening Post .

Stearns continually sought employment compatible with his scientific pursuits and strove to have his work published. In 1882, he sought work at Ward's Natural Science Establishment, a major supply house for scientific institutions, but declined an offer because of the low salary and fears the position would impinge on his writing. He sought employment with Wards again in 1883, but was not considered. In continual search of employment, he volunteered to give his collections of hard-won specimens to the Massachusetts College of Agriculture (now the University of Massachusetts), as well as his services, in order to promote himself as a curator of a proposed museum at the college in 1884-1885. In his attempts to bolster his credit in order to finance his publishing career, he cited the pending appointment as one he already had. Word of this resulted in his summary dismissal from consideration for the position. Stearns also attempted to publish his own journal, "The Massachusetts Bulletin of Natural History," for which he solicited subscriptions, and which was roundly criticized by C. Hart Merriam (former president of the Nuttall Ornithological Club) of the American Ornithological Union, for the use of unverified opinion cited as fact. Stearns also travled around Newfoundland at least three times to collect specimens, observe the inhabitants, and gather material for later books.

Stearns' last known residence and place of possible employment was Atlanta, Georgia. A version of one of his last works, A Manual of Ornithology (1895) was published by Atlanta University Press.

From the guide to the Winfrid Alden Stearns Papers, 1871-1906, (American Philosophical Society)

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creatorOf Winfrid Alden Stearns Papers, 1871-1906 American Philosophical Society
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Place Name Admin Code Country


Birth 1852

Death 1909



Ark ID: w6dp6t2j

SNAC ID: 4457750