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History of HRC

by Dennis H. Knight and Douglas G. Sprugel
PDF as published ESA Bulletin, Vol 96(1):32-40, January 2015
At ESA’s 21st annual meeting in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in 1936, the members in attendance passed a motion by Charles C. Adams calling for the formation of a committee to find a suitable location for archiving historic documents.* The appointed members, dubbed the Committee on Repository for Historical Records of the Ecological Society of America, were C. C. Adams (chair), George D. Fuller, and Robert F. Griggs.
The need for an archive was as clear then as it is now: There were concerns about losing papers that documented the history of both ESA and ecology, especially those in the files of aging members. C. C. Adams wrote, “As chairman of the Committee, I would be pleased to hear from all former officers of the Society regarding the amount and condition of the official files in their possession…” Some ESA members—those with an appreciation for the history of their developing profession—had boxes of material to donate. The committee was urged to find a repository that was centrally located, presumably to minimize shipping costs.
Five years later, in 1941, World War II provided an additional incentive for a central location. The American Antiquarian Society urged that professional organizations locate their documents away from population and industrial centers, to avoid losses in the event warfare occurred in North America. Since the Repository Committee was still without an archive to recommend, it suggested that members safeguard their papers, possibly sending them to less populated locations. ESA delayed shipments of Ecology, Ecological Monographs, and the Bulletin to European libraries, storing them until the war ended.
After six years of searching, the Repository Committee reached an agreement in 1943 with the University of Cincinnati, centrally located and a choice likely influenced by the fact that two of ESA’s leaders were on the faculty there—William A. Dreyer, ESA’s secretary at the time, and charter member E. Lucy Braun. The Council’s approval of this arrangement, also in 1943, was made by mail because the annual meeting that year was cancelled at the request of the U.S. Department of Defense Transportation, to minimize the use of national transportation facilities. A year later the Repository Committee issued its final report, recommending that it be dissolved and replaced by a new “Committee on Historical Records.” This recommendation was approved and the following committee was appointed: ESA’s secretary (William A. Dreyer), the University of Cincinnati Librarian (Edward A. Henry, ex officio), and one elected ESA member (Theodore Just, University of Notre Dame). The committee was officially established with the passage of Bylaw 13, published in the December 1946 issue of the Bulletin.

Bylaw 13. The historical records of the Society shall be deposited in the University of Cincinnati Library. These records shall include complete sets of the periodicals, important documents, and appropriate memorabilia. A Committee on Historical Records, which shall be a Standing Committee, composed of the Librarian of the University of Cincinnati, the Secretary of the Society, and a member elected by the Society, shall supervise the collection and preservation of these records. The Secretary of the Society shall be the Chairman of this committee.

William Albert Dreyer (1904-1979); President 1957

William Albert Dreyer (1904-1979); President 1957

William Dreyer, ESA secretary at the time, willingly served as the committee’s first chair. This arrangement seemed logical because many documents passed through his hands. However, Dreyer’s successor, William A. Castle, wrote that having the secretary be the chair appears “unwise since it places an added demand for time on an individual who is already called upon for a large share of service to the Society.” Castle recommended that the bylaws be amended “in such a way that the responsibility for continuance of the historical records will be placed on some other interested member of the Society.”

Table 1. Chairs (in bold) and known members of the Committee on Historical Records. An asterisk designates staff or others who have served in an ex officio capacity. (Bulletin, Vol 96(1).

Table 1.
Chairs (in bold) and known members of the Committee on Historical Records. An asterisk designates staff or others who have served in an ex officio capacity. (Bulletin, Vol 96(1).

Based on Castle’s recommendation, William Dreyer proposed an amendment to Bylaw 13 that would make the chair a separate office elected by the Society as a whole. The amendment passed and, presumably to no one’s surprise, Dreyer was elected. Four years later the bylaw was amended again so that the chair was elected by the ESA Council, with a three-year term, rather than by the Society as a whole. William Dreyer was elected once again. He was chair until 1975, serving for 23 years (26 counting his years as ESA secretary). Subsequent chairs have served shorter terms, typically 3–6 years (Table 1). In 1985 the bylaw was changed to specify that the chair and other committee members would be appointed by the president, rather than being elected, but in 1995 that responsibility was given to the secretary (with another change to the bylaw). The committee eventually became known as the Historical Records Committee (HRC).
During Dreyer’s tenure as HRC chair, the committee usually consisted of two or three members who served for long periods. The committee was relatively passive, devoting itself primarily to archiving issues of the Society’s journals and occasionally accepting donations of documents and correspondence from ecologists who had retired or died. Of course, from the time of ESA’s founding in 1915, the minutes of business meetings along with reports and announcements were routinely published, first primarily in Ecology and later, beginning in 1946, in the Bulletin. Indexed as “Proceedings,” these documents are easily found using online databases and provide a wealth of historical information.
The three chairs after Dreyer—Robert McIntosh, Robert Burgess, and Emily Russell—were enthusiastic students of ecological history. They increased the size of the committee (Table 1), became more involved in the management of the archives, and organized symposia of a historical nature to celebrate anniversaries (as described below). But as Burgess wrote in his 1986 report, “the Committee is not (and has never been) active as a committee, [although] individuals have contributed to the continuing interest in the history of ecology, and will assist in the understanding and assimilation of materials pertaining to the development of our science.” Recently, with heightened interest in ESA’s centennial celebration, and a desire to provide easy access to historical information on the history pages of ESA’s web site (, the Committee as a whole broadened its focus and became more involved. Growing to 14 members in 2014, it now has three subcommittees: Archives (Alan Covich, chair), Program (Juliana Mulroy, chair), and Web site (Sally White, chair). Its mission is to encourage members to conserve documents and photos pertinent to the history of ESA and ecology, and to assist in making such records available through the ESA History web site and other communications.
The Archives
Initially, the only function of the Historical Records Committee was to manage the ESA archives. The documents remained at the University of Cincinnati while William Dreyer was HRC chair; but when he retired in 1975, a decision was made to move them to the University of Georgia, home of then-President Frank Golley. They were transferred to the University of Georgia Libraries (UGAL) in 1977, where they are now part of the Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
The kind of documents that should be archived has long been a matter of debate. The Committee on a Repository for Historical Records expressed the hope that “former officers of the Society and members who have documents worthy of preservation, including pertinent individual photographs of officers and members and outstanding memorabilia, will send such material to the Secretary to be included in the Repository.” According to the 1944 Secretary’s report, the archived documents consisted of the following:


  • Complete bound sets of Ecology and Ecological Monographs
  • Bound volume of the Bulletin (volumes 1–8 inclusive)
  • Two bound volumes of the Bulletin (volumes 1–10 and 11–20 inclusive)
  • Naturalist’s Guide to the Americas, 1926.
  • Constitution and By-laws of the Society, 1938.2
  • Articles of Incorporation of the Society (copies only)
  • Report of the Committee on Nomenclature (1952)
  • Henry Chandler Cowles obituary, 1940
  • Correspondence of John W. Harshberger, 1926–1927**
  • Replies to 1926 ESA Research Questionnaire**
  • Correspondence of George D. Fuller, 1934–1944
  • Correspondence of Charles C. Adams**
  • Icones Plantarum Omeiensum, May, 1944**

Present-day historians would have liked much more, such as the correspondence of the earliest officers (some of the founders eventually archived their papers elsewhere). Nevertheless, ESA’s archives at UGAL grew. A shipment of pertinent documents is received periodically from the Washington Office and includes photographs, recent issues of all journals and special reports, annual reports, newsletters, and files from the Executive Director, past presidents, and others. Both digital and paper documents are accepted, and oral histories and videos of special events are now being added. The HRC recently completed guidelines on what, how, and where to submit historical documents for archiving (
An important step in expanding the scope of ESA’s archives was taken in 1981 when the ESA Council accepted an HRC recommendation that the papers of all officers (including section, chapter, and committee chairs) should be archived at the close of their terms in office. This requirement was formally added to the Bylaws in 1985. A similar recommendation relating to peer reviews of publications was initially rejected, but the following year the Council voted that “All records, correspondence, and other materials relating to the editorial process for ESA journals will be preserved by members of the Editorial Board and forwarded to the ESA archives at the end of their terms,” but that “All such records shall be maintained in strict confidentiality for a period of 10 years, or until the death of all parties, whichever comes first.” This limit was later extended to 25 years (with allowances for exceptional cases). It is common for an archive to place restrictions on accessing confidential documents. Much can be learned about a discipline’s history by reading peer reviews, reference letters, award nominations, and other similar documents that were confidential at the time they were written. Some oral histories may have confidential information as well.
Specifying the kinds of documents to archive has been a challenge, with chair after chair announcing the intention to develop a formal policy but with little progress being made. As a result, the default policy, often expressed in frustration, has been to “keep them all and let the historians decide.” The advent of digital communication and the transition away from paper documents has sharpened the challenge. For many it is no longer possible to simply box up a set of file folders and ship them to a repository. The HRC has worked with ESA staff and officers to develop revised policies, but it is not yet clear if they will be effective. The current guidelines can be accessed at
In 2010, the HRC secured funding from ESA’s Governing Board to hold a two-day workshop at the University of Georgia to assess the status of ESA’s documents and develop a plan for making them more accessible. Held in 2011, those in attendance were Kara Miller Blue (chair of the Archives Subcommittee at the time), Alan Covich, and Gregg Mitman representing the HRC, Katherine McCarter and Jane Bain representing the ESA staff, and Caroline Killens and Gilbert Head representing UGAL. At that time ESA’s documents were stored in about 700 Bankers Boxes (approximately 700 cubic feet) and had just recently been moved to a new state-of-the-art special collections building on campus. In addition to ESA documents, UGAL has the papers of other ecologists and The Institute of Ecology (TIE).
The workshop participants concluded that a grant should be sought to (1) facilitate document processing, (2) identify gaps in the kinds of documents that should be deposited at UGAL, (3) assure that the ESA collection will become available online (and linked to the ESA History web site), and (4) locate other archives that have documents pertinent to the history of ESA and ecology. Obtaining a major grant to assist with curating ESA’s collection has been a goal for more than 20 years but has not yet been accomplished. The workshop did lead to a new Memorandum of Understanding between UGAL and ESA.
Over the years, considerable attention has been given to archiving the records of ESA officers.** In fact, all ecologists have been encouraged to organize their documents (paper or digital) in files that will facilitate the work of future historians. Also, younger ecologists are urged to encourage their senior colleagues to do the same ( To stimulate interest in the centennial celebration and promote archiving, the HRC has sponsored a booth in the exhibit hall at the last five annual meetings.
Organizing history sessions at the Annual Meeting
The first symposium sponsored by HRC was the Henry Chandler Cowles Memorial Symposium: 50 Years After His Retirement. Organized by Elbert Little and HRC Chair Robert Burgess, it was part of the 1983 Annual Meeting in Grand Forks, North Dakota. Nine of Cowles’s former students were in attendance and spoke about their time at the University of Chicago. Nearly 100 people attended; Harriet Barclay gave the address at a banquet commemorating the occasion. Seven years later, for the 75th anniversary celebration in Snowbird, Utah, in 1990, William Kimler and HRC Chair Emily Russell organized a symposium with the title, Motivations for Ecological Research: How They Have Changed Through the Years. Also for that meeting, the committee prepared a display titled Leaders in Two Realms: Presidents of the Ecological Society of America as Leaders in Conservation (now archived at UGAL).
In anticipation of the 100th anniversary, the number of historical sessions increased greatly. Since 2011, the HRC Program Subcommittee, chaired by Juliana Mulroy, has organized the following sessions:

  • Doing history for the 2015 Centennial: How every ecologist can help locate primary records for research (2011)
  • Preparing for ESA’s 2015 Centennial: Why does understanding history matter to our future? (2012)
  • Ecologists doing history: Notes from the field (2012)
  • A Guide to Ecology’s Past, Current, and Future History: Reflections on a Theme by Robert McIntosh (2013)
  • Current Perspectives On The History Of Ecology (2013)
  • Communities, Places, and American Ecology: Case Studies (2013)
  • Ecological Concepts: Of what value and for whom? (2014)
  • Ecological Century: Perspectives on the Evolution of the Discipline (2014)
  • ESA’s Struggle for Identity Over the First 100 Years: Lessons for the Future? (2014)

In addition, HRC members and others have presented papers of a historical nature at these meetings, and proposals to the Program Committee for the centennial anniversary in Baltimore have been submitted.
Development of the ESA history web site
The Historical Records Committee has slowly morphed from oversight of the Society’s archives to involvement in all aspects of the history of ESA and ecology as a science. One of the first steps in this transition occurred in 1995, when ESA secretary and HRC member Robert Peet and vice president Robert K. Colwell created ESA’s first web site. They assembled lists of officers and award winners, along with other information and photos pertaining to the founding of the Society in the possession of former HRC chairs Robert Burgess and Robert McIntosh. The web site was updated from time to time by Robert Peet. Further changes were made recently by the HRC Web site Subcommittee, chaired by Sally White and guided by Robert Peet, Scott Franklin, ESA student member Susannah Tysor, and ESA staff members Jane Bain and Toni Kulmala. Always a work in progress, the web site ( now includes the following kinds of information:

  • Timeline with notable developments during ESA’s 100-year history
  • Timeline (including photos) for all deceased presidents that summarizes the issues confronted by each one during his or her time in office
  • Timeline (including photos) for all living past presidents with personal reflections on their time in office
  • Links to biographies that have been written for many ecologists
  • Historical information about ESA’s sections, chapters, and committees
  • Links to ESA reports pertaining to public affairs
  • Lists of ESA officers, award winners, and ESA meetings (and their themes)
  • List of ESA journals and the years in which they were initiated
  • List of books and articles pertinent to the history of ESA and ecology
  • Information about the Historical Records Committee and its work
  • Photo gallery
  • Contact form for questions
  • Protocols for archiving documents

Future additions to content on the web site depend on suggestions and submissions by ESA members and staff. A long-term goal is to provide online access to many of ESA’s archived documents, including oral histories, and to provide an online “road map” showing how to find other documents about the history of ESA, ecology, and ecologists—wherever they may be archived. Notably, many sections, chapters, and committees now have a history page on their own web sites.
It has long been ESA policy to publish both obituaries and longer “Resolutions of Respect” when members died. The Historical Records Committee was not initially involved in soliciting these notices, but various issues led the Council to develop a formal policy in the 1980s. This policy was revised in 1991 and the HRC was asked to assist with implementation. Resolutions of Respect currently are reserved for former Society officers and major award winners, and for others if recommended by the HRC and approved by the president. With the Bulletin now online, the difference between obituaries and Resolutions of Respect has become less pronounced; both are highly valued as historical documents. Regrettably, they have never been published for some prominent ecologists, perhaps because it is not widely known that colleagues of the deceased are expected to write them.
Thirty years passed between the founding of ESA and the appointment of the Historical Records Committee. The Society’s archives document the rapid growth in stature that ESA now enjoys. Still, many records were not saved, and historians often lament the lack of appreciation of scientists, then and now, for the historical significance of their files. For some ecologists there is uncertainty about what documents to archive and how to organize them. There also are questions about digital documents, such as e-mail that accumulates rapidly and is easily lost before it can be properly “filed.” Some are hesitant to send confidential files, even though access restrictions are now routine for sensitive documents (
Clearly, the HRC cannot fulfill its mission without the assistance of ESA members. In 1936 C. C. Adams wrote, “The history of any important scientific advance should be properly documented, and this cannot be done without the hearty support of the members of the Society.” Similarly, Robert McIntosh wrote in 1977, “with the increasing interest in ecology and the impact of ecological ideas on society, there is also more interest in the origins of ecology, how it has grown, the personalities of its founders and developers, and its interactions with society. It is important that records of the Society… be preserved.” Promoting and assisting that process has been HRC’s primary function since its establishment 70 years ago.

* Documentation for this brief history can be found in the proceedings of ESA meetings, published in the early years primarily in Ecology and then, beginning in 1946, in the Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America. The authors appreciate the reviews provided by Alan Covich, Gilbert Head, Sharon Kingsland, Katherine McCarter, Juliana Mulroy, Robert Peet, and Sally White.
** Though listed in the Secretary’s 1944 report, this document was not part of the ESA archives at UGAL in 1979. Some of the Charles C. Adam’s documents were added in 2013.
*** ESA has an additional archiving process, namely, an online “journal” called Ecological Archives. Its purpose is to conserve and provide access to appendices, supplements, and data sets that are pertinent but not required for articles published in ESA journals. The HRC has not been involved with this archive.
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NOTE: Anyone is encouraged to provide insights, observations, and suggestions that are pertinent. Please send such information to Dennis Knight (