Morgan, Ann Haven

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Ann Haven Morgan

Conservationist and educator Ann Haven Morgan (1882-1966) was a woman who enjoyed mucking around in ponds, digging into the earth, and illustrating what wonders she discovered. However, it is her tenure as a teacher—where she established for her students the importance of the study of the natural world, its conservation, and its benefits to humankind—which is her most enduring legacy.

Anna Haven Morgan was a born explorer of nature. Growing up on a farm in Connecticut, Morgan often escaped from her annoying younger sister and brother by wandering through the woods. On these adventures, she waded through ponds and streams, seeking out turtles, crawdads, dragonflies and other creatures of the water.

While attending the Williams Memorial Institute in New London, Connecticut, Morgan struggled to find books about the creatures she had discovered on her childhood adventures. Because there were none, she continued to learn about pond creatures through her own observations. After graduating from Williams, Morgan decided to pursue a degree in zoology at Wellesley College, but found Wellesley to be too strict, and with a dress code that required her to wear tight corsets. For her rebelliousness and aloof manner, Morgan was nicknamed "The New England Refrigerator." Not surprisingly, she left Wellesley and, in 1904, began her studies anew at Cornell University.

Became Lifelong Student of Nature

At Cornell, Morgan flourished. While taking entomology and zoology classes, she met her first mentor, teacher Anna Botsford Comstock. An intelligent woman working within a field dominated by men, Comstock demonstrated to Morgan that a woman could succeed by studying and teaching science. Graduating from Cornell in 1906 with a degree in zoology and inspired by Comstock's example, Morgan searched for a job in teaching. She began her career in education as an assistant to Cornelia Clapp, the head of the zoology department at Mount Holyoke College, an allgirl's college in South Hadley, Massachusetts.

While assisting Clapp, Morgan discovered that she was not alone in her passion for scientific discovery. Mount Holyoke and Clapp had as much dedication to nature as did Morgan herself, and in Clapp she found a mentor on par with Comstock. With her captivating personality, Clapp taught Morgan that nature is the best teacher, not books.

During the summers of 1907 and 1908, Morgan once again became a student. She returned to Cornell University where she worked with aquatic biology professor James Needham. A well-known "water wizard," Needham taught Morgan how to "see things in water," as Elizabeth D. Schafer explained in American National Biography Online. Needham also helped Morgan become a member of the Entomological Society of America, a rare honor for women at that time.

Focusing on aquatic biology, Morgan began her doctoral study research. For this research, she chose to study her favorite insect, the mayfly. Because she was so enthusiastic about this research, students nicknamed her "Mayfly Morgan." Through detailed drawings, Morgan carefully documented the habits of mayflies, as well as making a new discovery regarding the insect's evolution: adaptation. While collecting specimens, she observed that mayflies whose natural habitat was a muddy bank looked different from those whose natural habitat was a river rapid. How these adaptations helped each mayfly survive became Morgan's research question for her dissertation, titled A Contribution to the Biology of May-flies. Although earning a doctorate degree was the result of Morgan's research, she also became an expert at catching trout. Morgan was not a fisherman, but because she had studied and exactly illustrated the mayfly, she could create such real-looking fake flies—the trout's favorite food—that her fisherman friends who used her flies caught more fish.

Nicknamed "Electric Professor"

In 1912, after shortening her name to "Ann," Morgan returned to Mount Holyoke College to teach. She formed strong bonds with fellow teacher and former mentor Clapp as well as with her students. Even though some students found her demanding, Morgan mesmerized them with her boundless energy. Throughout the 1920s she continued teaching her students how nature creates its own environment and how within that environment species can survive. However, she also added a new idea to her class curriculum: conservation. Through the field trips she took with her students to rural, unspoiled habitats, Morgan clearly showed her feeling regarding conservation by allowing students to realize that no one could study and learn if what they studied no longer existed.

In 1926 Morgan traveled to British Guiana in South America to study the stump-legged mayfly. There, she finally discovered the answer to a nagging question that had been left unanswered in her doctoral studies: Why do mayflies retain some characteristics of infancy, such as longer front legs, while other body parts disappear? Morgan discovered that adult male mayflies retain their long front legs because they use them to grasp the female of the species during mating. Since the other body parts are not needed for reproduction, through adaptation, they have simply vanished.

Authored Three Books

In 1930 Morgan published her first book, Field Book of Ponds and Streams: An Introduction to the Life of Fresh Water. With this volume Morgan wrote the book she had wanted to read when she was a curious child, but never found. "This book began in ponds where frogs sat on lily-pads and by swift brooks from which mayflies flew forth at twilight. I hope that it may be a guide into the vividness and variety of their ways," wrote Morgan in the preface to her book. However, Field Book of Ponds and Streams turned into more than a guide; it inspired people all over the world to become better observers of nature. Morgan received many letters of thanks from readers who finally had the knowledge they needed to understand and appreciate the natural world.

Published in 1939, Morgan's second book, Field Book of Animals in Winter, focuses on the "ways in which animals meet the crises and depressions of winter," commented Schafer. This book was significant as one of the first books to focus on how and why animals hibernate. On its author's part, Morgan discovered an admiration for the animals, who had "persistence which must hearten any human being to contemplate," as Schafer quoted from the volume. Like her first book, Field Book of Animals in Winter also became an international best seller, impressing the editorial board of the Encyclopedia Britannica, which requested Morgan's permission and assistance in developing an educational film based on her work.

During the 1940s, with World War II raging, Morgan and her students joined many Americans in sending care packages to Allied soldiers. However, Morgan wanted to do more. So, in 1944, in her capacity as Massachusetts State aquatic biologist, she began a new study focusing on the ecosystems of the state's lakes. During war times, food shortages are common. Morgan reasoned that, if fish have no food to eat, they die. If their food supply is depleted, more fish will die, and in turn, the supply of fish for human consumption will also decline. Morgan's study of fish not only spotlighted the need for conservation as a way to sustain fish populations, but also discovered the means to provide more food for people to eat. During this project Morgan also earned another nickname, the "Big Fish Lady."

In 1947 Morgan retired from teaching, but she continued to study and to write, as well as present pubic workshops on conservation. Her third book, Kinships of Animals and Man: A Textbook of Animal Biology, published in 1955, reflects Morgan's increasing concern for the environment. As Schafer quoted the ecologist, Morgan wrote that "humanity is facing two very old problems, living with itself and living with its natural surroundings." Through her work she offered an solution: "Conservation is one way of working out these problems, an appreciation and intelligent care of living things and their environment. It is applied Ecology."

For Morgan, the survival of humankind depended upon the survival of animal-kind; she believed that "every creature had its place and function within the natural world," according to Marcia Myers Bonta in Women in the Field: America's Pioneering Women Naturalists. For her efforts as an inspiring and enthusiastic teacher and a dedicated field researcher, as well as for her work in public education and conservation, Morgan is remembered.


Bonta, Marcia Myers, Women in the Field: America's Pioneering Women Naturalists, Texas A. & M. University Press, 1991.

Hutchinson Dictionary of Scientific Biography, McGraw Hill, 1999.


American National Biography Online, (December 31, 2003).

"Ann Haven Morgan Papers," Mount Holyoke College Archives and Special Collections Web site, (January 5, 2004).

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