Olin Sewall Pettingill, Jr., died peacefully in his sleep in Bedford, Texas, 11 December 2001, at the age of 94, after a long and distinguished career in American ornithology. “Sewall” Pettingill, as he preferred to be called, was an exceptional college professor, lecturer, photographer, filmmaker, and writer about bird life.
Sewall Pettingill was born in Belgrade, Maine, on 30 October 1907, the only child of Dr. Olin Sewall Pettingill and Marion Groves. His father hoped young Sewall would follow in his footsteps and seek a career in medicine. Throughout childhood, Sewall really was not sure what he wanted to be. He had developed an interest in the chickens on his grandfather's farm, and at one time considered being a poultryman. In his own words he performed “marginally well in school”; his grades upon high school graduation in 1925 were not sufficient for admission into Bowdoin College—the only college he would consider. Sewall willingly attended a preparatory school, Kents Hill, in nearby Readfield, for one year, and was admitted into Bowdoin College in fall of 1926.
One thing Sewall knew for certain as a youngster, however, was his love for his childhood sweetheart, Eleanor, whom he met in 1921 in the 8th grade. He dated and courted Eleanor for 11 years, and married her on New Year's Eve, 1932. She was intimately involved in all of Sewall's ornithological endeavors, and even wrote her own book, A Penguin Summer (1960), a story of their adventures filming penguins and other birds in the Falkland Islands in 1953–1954. He published his version of that story in National Geographic Magazine in 1956.
At Bowdoin College, Sewall developed his interests in ornithology, mostly through his interactions with eminent zoology professor Alfred O. Gross. As a reporter for the college newspaper, Sewall interviewed Dr. Gross on his Ruffed Grouse investigations in Maine, and also his census work of the Heath Hen at Martha's Vineyard. One of his most memorable trips was on 5 April 1927, when he accompanied Dr. Gross, along with famed childrens' author Thornton W. Burgess, on a trip to Martha's Vineyard to observe, photograph, and take motion pictures of the three remaining male heath hens who did their courting dance in vain—the last female had already died. Sewall photographed one of the males, and later published his first article, “The Passing of the Heath Hen,” in Forest & Stream in 1929.
Sewall developed his skills in photography and motion pictures as tools for documenting bird life. In the summer of 1928, he enrolled at the University of Michigan Biological Station to undertake a course in field ornithology taught by Dr. Gross. This ultimately became his benchmark summer, as he studied and photographed nesting Hermit Thrushes, and later published the results in the inaugural volume of Bird-Banding (1930). At that point, graduate school loomed clearly on his horizon.
Sewall arrived in Ithaca in fall of 1930 to attend Cornell University and commenced a study of the American Woodcock for his Ph.D. dissertation under renowned ornithologist Dr. Arthur A. Allen. His fellow graduate students included George Miksch Sutton, John T. Emlen, and George B. Saunders. As a photographer and ornithologist, Sewall accompanied Sutton on expeditions to Hudson Bay in 1931 and Mexico in 1941.
Sewall received his Ph.D. in 1933 and spent the next three years in various teaching positions with the New Hampshire Nature Camp, Westbrook Junior College, and Bowdoin College. He obtained a 12-gauge shotgun with plenty of shells and “dust shot,” and began preparing bird study skins for his teaching collection. In the meantime, he reduced his dissertation from 557 to 300 typed pages and published it in 1936 as “The American Woodcock (Philohela minor)” in the Memoirs of the Boston Society of Natural History.
In 1936, Sewall joined the faculty of Carleton College, Northfield, Minnesota, where he taught ornithology, entomology, and comparative anatomy until 1953. As expressed by his former students, his classes were demanding. He carried with him a somewhat serious demeanor, intermixed with a dry sense of humor; he regularly dressed in jacket and tie, but made it a point to wear a black tie on exam days. In a convivial way, his students came to nickname him, “Sewall the Cruel.” In 1945, he took a year-long sabbatical from Carleton College to participate in a project with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Audubon Society to track Whooping Crane movements from their wintering grounds in Texas, but his search for extant breeding grounds in Saskatchewan was unsuccessful.
He joined the AOU in 1930, became an Elective Member in 1937, and a (Life) Fellow in 1947. Between 1937 and 1952, he fulfilled roles as secretary, vice president, and president of the Wilson Ornithological Society, and secretary of the American Ornithologists' Union. He was a delegate to the 12th International Ornithological Congress in Helsinki in 1958, and to the 14th IOC in Oxford in 1966.
At Carleton College, Sewall wrote and published his classic textbook, Ornithology in Laboratory and Field (1939). It became the longest-running and most widely used ornithological text in American colleges, with the 5th edition (1985) still in circulation. He published his pioneering bird-finding books, A Guide to Finding Birds East of the Mississippi in 1951, and the companion volume, A Guide to Finding Birds West of the Mississippi in 1953. He went on to coauthor several state guides, Enjoying Maine Birds (1960), Enjoying Birds in Upstate New York (1963), and Enjoying Birds Around New York City (1966).
Sewall was a regular columnist for Audubon Magazine from 1957 to 1968, and served as editor-in-chief of The Audubon Illustrated Handbook of American Birds (1968). He edited the bird section in Biological Abstracts for 11 years (1942–1953) and book reviews for The Wilson Bulletin for 10 years (1959–1969).
Lecturing and motion picture work occupied a central place in his career. After he left his full-time teaching position at Carleton, he was Director of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology for 13 years (1960–1973), meanwhile serving as a Director of the National Audubon Society for 19 years (1955–1974). He accumulated much original film footage of birds, shown during his many lectures for the National Audubon Society's Screen Tours, from 1943–1978, taking him across the United States and into Canada, Bermuda, Bahamas, several Caribbean Islands, and Great Britain. He also led Audubon tours to the Galápagos Islands, and to Antarctica on the Lindblad Explorer.
Prompted by the success of his early filming of Atlantic Puffins, one of his first productions for the Audubon Screen Tours, Sewall obtained a contract with Walt Disney Studios to film penguins. Based upon a personal recommendation by Robert Cushman Murphy, Sewall chose the Falkland Islands. He obtained valuable footage of five species of penguins arriving on their breeding grounds, nesting, and returning to the sea following breeding. He returned to the islands five additional times, including a self-funded trip in 1971–1972; this resulted in his book Another Penguin Summer (1975). Other major film projects included those of birds and other wildlife in Iceland (in 1958), albatrosses on Midway Island (in 1963), and kiwis and other birds of New Zealand (in 1965). His film work can be seen in several early Walt Disney films, including Nature's Half Acre, Water Birds, The Vanishing Prairie, and Islands of the Sea.
As highlighted in Frank Graham's 1981 article, “The Man from Wayne,” above all Sewall wanted to be remembered as a teacher. Although his tenure at Carleton College only lasted 17 years, he taught ornithology and advanced ornithology at the University of Michigan Biological Station during 35 summers between 1938 and 1974. Numerous bird skins he collected and prepared over the years still reside in the Pettingill Laboratory there, in use by students of the “Biology of Birds” course. Sewall was a proficient taxidermist and believed in a good collection of bird-skins for teaching purposes. In 1974, he sold his personal collection of 2,253 study skins to the Delaware Museum of Natural History, and 500 additional skins to the Kalamazoo Nature Center.
After his retirement from the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology in 1973, he and Eleanor moved from Ithaca to take up residence in Wayne, Maine. Their plans were cut short four years later when Eleanor died of cancer in March 1977. Despite his greatest loss, Sewall remained productive. He revised his bird finding guides (the eastern in 1977, and the western in 1981), his textbook in 1985, and published his autobiography, My Way to Ornithology, in 1991. He remarried in 1985 to Josephine Dawson, and in 1987 they moved to Texas to spend their remaining years. His death followed hers by nine days.
Sewall received numerous awards and honors in his lifetime, including the Arthur A. Allen Medal from the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology in 1974, the Ludlow Griscom Award from the American Birding Association in 1982, and the Eugene Eisenmann Medal from the Linnaean Society of New York in 1985. He received Honorary Doctorates of Science from Bowdoin College in 1956, Colby College in 1975, and the University of Maine in 1982. His work for Walt Disney Productions earned him appearances on NBC's “The Today Show” and as a featured contestant on the original television show “To Tell The Truth.” He is survived by his two children, Polly Pettingill Losito of Auburn, New York, and Mary-Ann Vondra of Euless, Texas, as well as six grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.
Upon entering my sophomore year in college, I received a letter from Sewall, dated 27 August 1982, wherein he expressed his philosophy on becoming a writer (emphasis his):
“By all means, write, write, WRITE, and write some more. Not to me, but on the results of your observations. You'll never regret putting them down on paper, if not for the present, then for future reference. You will find writing hard going but it will improve with practice. Even at my stage in life, and with all the writing I have done, writing for me is still far from easy. Good writing is real work, often requiring much re-writing. Any author worth his salt will agree.”