Memorable Manitobans: William O. “Bill” Pruitt (1922-2009)
University professor, naturalist.
Born at Easton, Maryland in 1922, his fascination with natural history began in the Chesapeake Bay area. He obtained an undergraduate degree from the University of Maryland, and served overseas in the US Army Medical Corps during the Second World War, after which he obtain a PhD in zoology from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. He then homesteaded in central Alaska and also surveyed caribou populations in northern Canada. From local trappers and hunters, he learned the outdoor skills that he later passed on to his students: how to build snow shelters, stay warm, read weather conditions, and use dog teams. He was eventually hired as a field biologist by the University of Alaska at Fairbanks.
In the late 1950s, the United States Atomic Energy Commission initiated a plan, codenamed Project Chariot, to detonate up to six nuclear explosions along the northwest coast of Alaska to create a new deep water harbour for future mineral extraction. Pruitt’s research revealed that “unprecedented and irreversible damage” would result from the plan. He and his two colleagues stood up to the university and the governments of Alaska and the US, climaxing in February 1962 when his final report was censored by the University and he lost his job. He found temporary positions doing field work in Colorado and teaching at the University of Oklahoma in Norman. In 1965, he took a job in the Department of Biology at Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. While there he played a role in the establishment of Gros Morne National Park. In 1969, he moved to Winnipeg to teach zoology at the University of Manitoba. In 1973, he established the Taiga Biological Station, a research outpost in the boreal forest near Wallace Lake, Manitoba, where he held field trips for undergraduate courses and provided a location for field research by graduate students and visiting scholars. Over the years, many ecology studies were carried out there.
Pruitt was a seasonal guest on local radio stations, explaining the ecological importance and the beauty of winter in Canada. He pioneered the use of specific terms for all kinds of snow formations, drawing together a specialized vocabulary of Inuktitut, Inupiat, and Dene words that is widely used today. He was an associate editor of the scientific journal The Canadian Field-Naturalist. He was a longtime member of the Manitoba Naturalists Society (now Nature Manitoba), and was honourary chairperson of the organization for a period of time. He co-wrote Boreal Forest of Canada and Russia (2004), a bilingual Russian-English study based on the decades of research findings at the Taiga Biological Station and the Kostroma Taiga Biological Station in Russia. He also contributed articles to popular publications such as Harpers and Audubon, and scientific journals such as The Canadian Field-Naturalist and the Journal of Mammalogy. He maintained an active correspondence with hundreds of naturalists around the world. After his formal retirement from the university, he held a Senior Scholar position and continued to supervise graduate students at the Taiga Biological Station.
Called “the father of North American boreal ecology,” in 1989 he received the Canadian government’s Northern Science Award Centenary Medal “for significant contribution to understanding of the North.” He was also the recipient of the Scion Distinguished Naturalist Medal, the Vilhjalmur Stefansson Award, as well as an Award of Merit for his teaching film, Techniques in Boreal Ecology. He was a Fellow of the Explorers Club, in recognition of his contribution to scientific knowledge. In May 1993, his stand against Project Chariot was vindicated when he received a special citation from the Alaska State Legislature for his “allegiance to truth and personal integrity.” He was also presented with an Honorary Doctor of Science degree from the University of Alaska. In May 2001, he was given an Honourary Doctor of Science degree by Memorial University.
He died on 7 December 2009.
Obituary, Winnipeg Free Press, 19 December 2009.
Page revised: 19 December 2009
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