The University of Chicago Magazine

October 1997


By Mary Ruth Yoe


The neatly penned legend on the faded glass lantern slide reads, H.C.C. Near Watch Tower, Rock Island, 1919. Hold the black-and-white slide up to the light and you see a picnicker slouched in a striped canvas camp chair, a hearty sandwich in hand. At first glance, Henry Chandler Cowles could be mistaken for a jolly Boy Scout leader, shepherding his young charges on a summer outing.

In truth, Cowles (1869–1939) was a University of Chicago botanist, known as America's first professional ecologist. And the glass lantern slide is among thousands of images in a Regenstein Library collection that's about to receive new life. With a grant from the Library of Congress/Ameritech National Digital Library project, U of C Library staff will be converting many of the Cowles images to digital format, so that the Library of Congress can put them on line as part of its plan to establish an on-line archive.

The 4,000 slides, 800 glass negatives, and 1,000 photographic prints in the U of C collection-which were taken between 1897 and 1931-cover America in scenes all the way from the redwood forests to the Gulf Stream waters. The majority of the images, however, document the Midwestern plains and, in particular, the Indiana Dunes, where Cowles first developed his theories of plant succession, the idea that plant communities continually evolve in relation to the changing environment. His 1898 doctoral dissertation at Chicago, "An Ecological Study of the Sand Dune Flora of Northern Indiana," helped to transform botanical research from a science of classification into a more theoretical field of inquiry: ecology.

"The province of ecology," he wrote in an equally influential 1899 monograph, "is to consider the mutual relations between plants and their environment." Seeing the plants in a particular ecosystem as "a panorama, never twice alike," Cowles believed that the ecologist's task was "to discover the laws which govern the panoramic changes." To uncover such laws, Cowles found the constantly shifting Indiana sand dunes the perfect research site: "By burying the past, the dune offers to plant life a world for conquest, subject almost entirely to existing physical conditions.The advance of a dune makes all things new."


To document the nation's changing panoramas, Cowles and his colleagues took pictures, lots of pictures. The landscapes, close-ups of botanical forms, and snapshots of students in the field were sometimes used as illustrations in scientific articles and, more often, as teaching tools, illustrating botany department lectures back on the quads.

Change comes to teaching aids as well as to plant communities, and after Cowles retired in 1934, the collection gradually fell from view, superseded by newer technologies. In 1988, the Department of Biology (successor to the botany department) did some housecleaning, and the images went to the University Library.

There, says Special Collections curator Alice D. Schreyer, the images are used "mostly by staff at National Park Services sites, who come to see the slides for restoration or historical purposes." Now, as part of the American Memory project-the arm of the Library of Congress digital-archives project designed to give elementary- and secondary-school students Internet access to an array of primary sources-the collection should garner a larger and no doubt younger audience.

Getting the collection on line should take about 18 months. Work begins in October as Schreyer and U of C Library colleagues in Special Collections, preservation, and systems management begin to digitize the images, which will be identified by location, photographer, and format. Stored on a server at Chicago, the images will be viewable by way of a link from the American Memory Web site .

If all goes as planned, the slides and photographs should be on line by mid-1999. Henry Chandler Cowles could not have imagined the electronic format but, as a firm believer in the laws of succession, he would no doubt greet the news with a wide and triumphant grin.

Other Features:

The fruit of his labor
Year-in, year-out--from bud break to harvest, barrel to bottle--Napa Valley vintner Chris Howell, AB'75, pursues the perfect wine.


Jumping into the culture wars
A new master's program in the humanities takes as it's subject the big questions--and the heated battles those questions often start.



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