Skip navigation

Saturday December 19, 2009

DR. WILLIAM O. PRUITT, JR. After a long and very full life, Professor William 'Bill' O. Pruitt Jr., a Senior Scholar in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Manitoba, died on December 7. He left quietly and peacefully, with family at his side. He was 87 years old. Bill is survived by his wife of 58 years, Erna Pruitt; daughter, Cheryl Pruitt (Mick), and son, Charles Pruitt. Dr. Pruitt, the founder of the Taiga Biological Station in northeastern Manitoba, has been called 'the father of North American boreal ecology.' In 1989, Dr. Pruitt, whose research on the influence of snow on animals adapted to the north is known worldwide, 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 Seton 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. 'He was a great supporter of wildlife research and conservation, a passionate visionary of snow ecology, an inspiring teacher, and a unique personality within the Manitoba wildlife scene,' said wildlife biologist Dr. Robert Wrigley, curator of Winnipeg's Assiniboine Park Zoo. 'When Dr. Pruitt spoke, he commanded attention and respect. It is sad that we can no longer phone him and ask his advice on some question, and I will never observe snow piled on spruce boughs without thinking of him.' Born in 1922 in Easton, Maryland, Bill's earliest fascination with natural history began in the rich ecosystem of the Chesapeake Bay area. He obtained his undergraduate degree at the University of Maryland, and served in the US Army Medical Corps overseas during the Second World War. He was doing post-graduate work in zoology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor when he met a young woman from St Louis, Missouri, who was doing her post-graduate work on spiders. This young woman, Erna Nauert, shared his enthusiasm for field work and adventure, and they were married in 1951. Shortly after their marriage, Bill and Erna packed a truck and drove from Michigan to Alaska, up the newly-opened Alaska Highway. Throughout his life, he would tell people close to him that Erna was his inspiration, his greatest friend, and the constant love of his life. The young couple settled in central Alaska, building their own log home and homesteading. Both Pruitt children were born in Alaska. Bill worked on the major Canadian Wildlife Service survey of caribou populations that took place across northern Canada in the late 1950s, and developed a lifelong respect and affection for caribou as studied the huge herds up close. From local trappers and hunters, he learned the outdoor skills that he passed on to his own students for the rest of his life: how to build snow shelters, stay warm, read weather conditions, use dog teams, and so on. He was eventually hired as a field biologist by the University of Alaska in 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. Dr. Pruitt, along with botanist Dr. Leslie Viereck and geographer Dr. Don Foote, all specialists in their respective fields, were tapped for their expertise for the project. However, their research quickly revealed that 'unprecedented and irreversible damage' would result from such nuclear explosions. Here Dr. Pruitt was to display the fearlessness that lay under the surface of his gentle demeanour. Despite an overwhelming pressure to rubberstamp the flawed scheme, he and his two colleagues stood up to the university and the governments of Alaska and the US. 'The whole department 'A number the biology situation climaxed in February 1962 when my final report was censored by the head of the biology at the University of Alaska,' Dr. Pruitt said in a paper he wrote about the topic several years ago. of scientific conclusions were modified severely or completely eliminated. Moreover, those of us in faculty who had publicly protested the false statements had our contracts `not renewed.'' In his book, The Firecracker Boys (St. Martin's Press), author and oral historian Dr. Dan O'Neill writes that Project Chariot was 'stopped by the first successful protest against the American nuclear establishment, started by the Eskimos at Point Hope, University of Alaska biologists, and an odd bush pilot or two' and finally reaching the Senate and White House. 'The networking done by the Chariot protestors laid the foundations for the environmental movement of the 1960s and `70s,' he observes. Three decades later, on May 7, 1993, Dr. Pruitt and Dr. Viereck were personally honoured with special citations by the Alaska State Legislature for their as Dr. Viereck put it 'allegiance to truth and personal integrity.' 'Gentlemen, you were right, and we, the people of Alaska, owe you a debt of gratitude for holding strong to your principles. The members of the Eighteenth Alaska State Legislature humbly thank you,' says the citation. Dr. Pruitt was also presented with an Honorary Doctor of Science degree at the same time by the University of Alaska. The stand taken by Dr. Pruitt and the others against the Project Chariot proposal had a price. Dr. Pruitt lost his job at the University of Alaska, and he began the search for another university-level teaching and research position. Job offers mysteriously dried up before he could accept them. He found temporary positions doing field work in Colorado and teaching at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, moving the family each time. When he concluded that it might never be possible to find a secure position in his field at any university in the United States, the Pruitts decided to move to Canada, and in 1965, Dr. Pruitt took a job in the Department of Biology at Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. 'There he lived in a mutualistic relationship with his students, many of whom to this day remember his lessons about the adaptations of mammals and the importance of preserving a variety of habitats; the peculiar adaptation that allowed him to draw bilaterally symmetrical structures on the blackboard using both hands at once; and the adventure of field trips in all weather conditions,' says the inscription on the Honourary Doctor of Science degree presented to Bill by Memorial University on May 11, 2001. 'The environmentalist aspects of Bill Pruitt's behaviour were nowhere clearer than in his role in the establishment of Gros Morne National Park. In the initial boundary studies, he tried to establish a zone that would protect the ranges of as many species as possible, not just provide temporary range for humans seeking a `natural' experience.' In 1969, the Pruitts moved to Winnipeg where Bill had been hired to teach at the University of Manitoba. In 1973, Dr. Pruitt launched the Taiga Biological Station, a research outpost in the boreal forest, where he held countless field trips for his undergraduate courses and provided a location for longer-term field research by graduate students and visiting scholars. Over the years, scores of ecology studies were carried out at the Taiga Biological Station, and the data records include we

Back to top