E. Laurence Palmer

E. Laurence Palmer

E (Ephraim) Laurence Palmer – an American science educator and conservationist
1888 – 1970

Eph Palmer was born in McGraw, New York, on July 8, 1888, to Laura Lincoln (née Darrow) and Ephraim Clark Palmer. He attended Cortland State Normal School, and in 1908 enrolled in Cornell University, graduating with an A.B. in 1911 and M.A. in 1913. He taught at Iowa State Teachers College before returning to Cornell to earn a PhD in systematic botany in 1917. In 1921 he married Katherine Van Winkle, a paleontologist.

Palmer served as president of several national organizations including: the National Council of Supervisors of Nature Study and Gardening; the American Nature Study Society; the Department of Science Instruction of the National Education Association (now National Science Teachers Association); and the National Association of Biology Teachers.

He was director of the National Audubon Society (1946-1950)

He was director of Conservation Education of the National Wildlife Federation (1950-1956).

He directed nature programs for the Boy Scouts of America for over 30 years, and was awarded the Silver Beaver and Silver Buffalo Awards for his service.

He edited the Cornell Rural School Leaflet for 34 years, and was elected Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Rochester Academy of Science.

He was known for books such as Field Book of Natural History (1949), the weekly radio show This Week in Nature of the 1940s and 1950s, and his monthly writings in Nature Magazine 1920’s-50’s.

While he retired from Cornell University in1952, E. Laurence Palmer continued writing and lecturing almost until his death in 1970. This prolific man was a major contributor to a worldwide nature education movement stressing the study of living things and their environment. Teacher, scholar, and humanitarian, he was known throughout this country and abroad for his tireless efforts to promote field study and preservation of natural areas.

Eph Palmer was educated at Cortland State Normal School, graduating in 1908. An able student, Palmer won a four-year scholarship competition and chose to enroll at Cornell University in 1908. Although repelled by his first college biology course, his close association with Professor Rowlee sustained him. His career as a teacher began in 1910 when he was appointed as a teaching assistant to Professor Rowlee. Palmer earned the A.B. degree in 1911 and the M.A. degree in 1913.

In his first full-time teaching appointment at Iowa State Teachers College, Palmer began building his reputation as a scholar in field biology and as a teacher. He returned to Cornell for further study and completed the Ph.D. in systematic botany in 1917. After a brief tour in the navy, he was appointed assistant professor of rural education at Cornell in 1919.

His interest in teaching led him to study education at Teachers College, Columbia University, in 1921. Professor Palmer’s prolific writing career began in 1919 with his contributions to the Cornell Rural School Leaflet, a publication he edited for thirty-four years. He also began as director of nature education for Nature Magazine. His contributions to the latter journals and many other Journals number over seven hundred. He wrote or contributed to numerous books and pamphlets, and his Fieldbook of Natural History remains a classic reference for students of nature. He received numerous honors and awards and elected president of six professional Cornell organizations. (University Faculty Memorial Statement http://ecommons.library.cornell.edu/handle/1813/17813)

An active supporter of the Boy Scouts, Palmer received the Silver Beaver Award in 1947 and the Silver Buffalo Award in 1964.

Largely bored with his experience in elementary and secondary school, Palmer worked throughout his career to improve education. He promulgated concern for relevance and preservation of our environment decades before the current popular appeal for these issues. He chastised the recluse but respected quiet scholarship. In all his associations with students, he urged development of their powers of observation and analysis, now popularized under cries for “process education.” He was a severe critic of the meaningless memorization of scientific facts so common in schools and colleges during his career as well as now.

His passion for learning and education remain evident and relevant in his writings that are still used today including the Cornell Rural School Leaflets and Nature Magazine…both advocates of the Nature Study movements that took place in the early-mid 90’s and the forerunners of current and more modern Outdoor Education, Environmental Education and Sustainability Education movements.

In addition to his numerous field study natural history books and handbooks, still in use today, including the over 100 (8pp each) Natural History Inserts, also in use today, that appeared monthly in Nature Magazine 1928-1960’s, he authored over 88 articles for the Department of Nature Education titled “The School Page”. The School Page was also published Nature Magazine and often coordinated and complimented the Natural History Insert for that month. For example, if the Natural History Insert focused on ‘Bugs’, the accompanying “School Page” focused on ‘Bugs in the ‘Classroom’ giving the classroom teacher a number of ways to incorporate the subject matter into present and on-going school curriculum studies.

His close collaboration with Katherine, a scientist in her own right, was a source of constant strength and personal resolve.


Camp Fire Nature Guide, Slingerland-Comstock Publishing Company, 1925.

The Field Book of Nature Study, Slingerland-Comstock Publishing Company, 1925, revised 1928.

The Nature Almanac (with Arthur Newton Pack), American Nature Association, 1927, 1930.

Nature Magazine’s Guide to Science Teaching, American Nature Association, 1936.

Fieldbook of Mammals, E. P. Dutton and Company, 1957

Fossils, Heath and Company, 1965