Thomas Sadler Roberts

Last updated
Portrait from Bird Lore (1903) Thomas Sadler Roberts.jpg
Portrait from Bird Lore (1903)

Thomas Sadler Roberts (February 16, 1858 - April 19, 1946) was an American physician known for his work in ornithology, bird conservation and for his book The Birds of Minnesota (1932), a comprehensive account on the birds of the Minnesota area. Roberts was an influential educator on birds and their conservation and helped establish the Bell Museum of Natural History. Thomas Sadler Roberts Bird Sanctuary in Minneapolis is named after him. He was among the many ornithologists who saw the last flocks of the passenger pigeon in Minneapolis.



Roberts was born to John Roberts and his wife, a family of Welsh Quaker origins, in Philadelphia. His early life was spent in Germantown and later to Minnesota where his father moved after being diagnosed with tuberculosis.

He grew up in the countryside and took an interest in natural history. He learned to skin birds from Franklin Benner who he met in June 1874. Between the age of 16 and 18 he collected and preserved nearly 600 specimens. In 1876, at the age of 18, he and several other friends from the Minneapolis High School established the Young Naturalists' Society in Minneapolis with Roberts as a secretary. Another member of this group was Clarence Luther Herrick. In his younger days, Roberts accompanied his father to shoot birds including the passenger pigeon and upland sandpiper for food. It was after 1874 that he began to carefully make notes on them. Along with Benner and Clarence Herrick, he observed nests and collected eggs. The Young Naturalists' Society was key in influencing Roberts. They discussed many topics and read books. One member Robert Williams, whose father owned a bookstore and had access to a library known as the Minneapolis Athenaeum, made it possible for them to research many of their observations. The collection included John James Audubon's Birds of America . The group read George Perkins Marsh's Man and Nature . Several member of the group continued to write notes on science in later life. [1] In his valedictory talk at the Minneapolis High School in 1877 Roberts spoke about how money was sought with vengeance by society and noted that in order to be truly happy one needed "recreation for the mind". [2]

In 1882 he joined the University of Pennsylvania medical school and graduated MD in 1885. He worked in Philadelphia hospitals before returning to Minneapolis to practice. For a while he maintained a private practice. He trained his office assistant Mabel Densmore in the study of birds and she later became an accomplished ornithologist. [3] From 1887 he served at St. Barnabas Hospital as chief of staff and from 1901 to 1913, taught pediatrics at the University of Minnesota medical school.

In 1898 Roberts took to bird photography, often consulting Frank Chapman on the subject. [4] While in St. Barnabas, he met Leslie Dart, another doctor with an interest in birds. [5] In 1914 Roberts served as a doctor on the Hildebret a yacht in the Everglades that was used by his patient James Stroud Bell who had been advised that the Florida sun could improve his health. Bell's son James Ford Bell was also aboard. During this visit, Roberts also met Frank Chapman at Ormond. James Ford Bell later helped Roberts establish a museum at the University of Minnesota. [6] The Bell Museum of Natural History occupied Roberts after his retirement from medical practice. [7] He died at Eitel hospital where he was taken after a heart attack. He is buried at Lakewood cemetery in a family plot. [8] [9]

The Birds of Minnesota

Roberts' took up the work to document the birds of Minnesota after several of his friends died and his wife had become invalid. He hired Allan Brooks to paint many of the plates for the book. He was assisted by many of his friends and his assistant Mabel Densmore. [10] The second volume of the book included a key to the species. [11] A second edition was published in 1936.

Personal life

Roberts married Jane Cleveland in 1887 and they had two sons and a daughter. After her death in 1932 he married Agnes Williams Harley in 1937. Roberts' sister Emma was a botanical artist. [9] Agnes was a friend of his sister Emma and shared a botanical interest and they produced a collection of botanical illustrations which are now held in the Andersen Horticultural Library at the University of Minnesota. [7] [12]


Roberts received the AOU's Brewster Medal in 1938 and a Sigma Xi letter of commendation for work in science in 1941. [7]

T.S. Roberts Wildlife Sanctuary was named after him on the southeastern shore of Lake Harriet in 1947. [13]


  1. Leaf:30-40.
  2. Leaf:39.
  3. Leaf:122.
  4. Leaf:120-122.
  5. Leaf:107.
  6. Leaf:133.
  7. 1 2 3 Breckenridge, WJ; Kilgore, William (1946). "Thomas Sadler Roberts" (PDF). Auk. 63 (4): 574–583.
  8. Leaf:227-228.
  9. 1 2 Leaf, Sue (2013). "A tale of two siblings" (PDF). Minnesota History. 63 (6): 236–245.
  10. Leaf: 175-191.
  11. [W.S.] (1932). "Roberts' 'Birds of Minnesota'" (PDF). Auk. 49 (3): 368–370.
  12. "Emma Roberts". Andersen Horticultural Library, University of Minnesota. Retrieved 21 November 2017.
  13. Leaf:229.

Related Research Articles

American Ornithological Society

The American Ornithological Society (AOS) is an ornithological organization based in the United States. The society was formed in October 2016 by the merger of the American Ornithologists' Union (AOU) and the Cooper Ornithological Society. Its members are primarily professional ornithologists, although membership is open to anyone with an interest in birds. The society publishes the two scholarly journals, The Auk and The Condor as well as the AOS Checklist of North American Birds.

Margaret Morse Nice American ornithologist

Margaret Morse Nice was an American ornithologist, ethologist, and child psychologist who made an extensive study of the life history of the song sparrow and was author of Studies in the Life History of the Song Sparrow (1937). She observed and recorded hierarchies in chicken about three decades ahead of Thorleif Schjelderup-Ebbe who coined the term "pecking order". After her marriage, she made observations on language learning in her children and wrote numerous research papers.

Robert Ridgway American ornithologist (1850–1929)

Robert Ridgway was an American ornithologist specializing in systematics. He was appointed in 1880 by Spencer Fullerton Baird, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, to be the first full-time curator of birds at the United States National Museum, a title he held until his death. In 1883, he helped found the American Ornithologists' Union, where he served as officer and journal editor. Ridgway was an outstanding descriptive taxonomist, capping his life work with The Birds of North and Middle America. In his lifetime, he was unmatched in the number of North American bird species that he described for science. As technical illustrator, Ridgway used his own paintings and outline drawings to complement his writing. He also published two books that systematized color names for describing birds, A Nomenclature of Colors for Naturalists (1886) and Color Standards and Color Nomenclature (1912). Ornithologists all over the world continue to cite Ridgway's color studies and books.

Frank Chapman (ornithologist)

Frank Michler Chapman was an American ornithologist and pioneering writer of field guides.

John Todd Zimmer was a leading American ornithologist.

Constantine Walter Benson OBE was a British ornithologist and author of over 350 publications. He is considered the last of a line of British Colonial officials that made significant contributions to ornithology.

Witmer Stone

Witmer Stone was an American ornithologist, botanist, and mammalogist, and was considered one of the last of the “great naturalists.” Stone is remembered principally as an ornithologist. He was president of the American Ornithologists’ Union (AOU) 1920–23, and was editor of the AOU's periodical The Auk 1912–1936. He spearheaded the production of the 4th edition of the AOU checklist, published in 1931. He worked for over 50 years in the Ornithology Department at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, eventually serving as Director of the institution. Stone was one of the founding members of the Delaware Valley Ornithological Club (DVOC) in 1890 and was actively involved in the organization for the remainder of his life. Stone was one of only two scientists to serve as president of both the AOU and the American Society of Mammalogists, and he co-authored two popular books about mammals. His outstanding botanical contribution was The Plants of Southern New Jersey, published in 1911. Stone spent many summers at Cape May, New Jersey, summering there annually starting in 1916. He is best remembered for his two-volume classic Bird Studies at Old Cape May, which was published by the DVOC in 1937, two years before his death.

Bell Museum of Natural History Natural history museum of the University of Minnesota

The Bell Museum, formerly known as the James Ford Bell Museum of Natural History, is located at the University of Minnesota. The museum's new location on the St. Paul campus opened July 13–15, 2018. The world-renowned Minnesota wildlife dioramas, numerous animal specimens from all over the world, and the 120-seat digital Whitney and Elizabeth MacMillan Planetarium theater are highlighted features of the new facility. The museum's former location in Minneapolis is closed as the work to move to the University of Minnesota's St. Paul campus began in January 2017. The museum is part of the University's College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences.

Charles Foster Batchelder was an American ornithologist and naturalist. He was an early member and President of the American Ornithologists' Union, and of the Nuttall Ornithological Club. He also edited The Auk, and before it, the Bulletin of the Nuttall Ornithological Club.

Viktor von Tschusi zu Schmidhoffen

Viktor von Tschusi zu Schmidhoffen was an Austrian ornithologist.

Richard C. Banks

Richard Charles Banks, Ph.D. is an American author, ornithologist and Emeritus Research Zoologist on staff with the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center run by the U.S. Geological Survey and stationed at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. He is the founder of the Ornithological Council and known for his study of the migratory systems, patterns, and geographic variations of North American birds, primarily focusing on the research and analysis of white-fronted geese.

Robert Wilson Shufeldt American osteologist, myologist, museologist, ethnographer, and white supremacist (1850–1934)

Robert Wilson Shufeldt was an American osteologist, myologist, museologist and ethnographer who contributed to comparative studies of bird anatomy and forensic science. He held strong views on race and was a proponent of white supremacy. A scandal and subsequent divorce from his second wife, the granddaughter of the famous ornithologist John James Audubon, led to a landmark judgment by the Supreme Court of the United States of America on the subject of alimony and bankruptcy.

John W. Fitzpatrick American ornithologist

John Weaver Fitzpatrick is an American ornithologist primarily known for his research work on the South American avifauna and for the conservation of the Florida scrub jay. He is currently the Louis Agassiz Fuertes Director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York.

Harrison B. Tordoff

Harrison Bruce "Bud" Tordoff was an American ornithologist and conservationist. He was brought up in Mechanicville in upstate New York, hunting and fishing, and became interested in wildlife management and zoology. He studied as an undergraduate at Cornell University, returning to complete his degree after a period of military service during World War II. He had served as a fighter pilot in the United States Army Air Forces, and his five confirmed aerial victories qualified him as a fighter ace.

(Mary) Emma Roberts (1859–1948) was an artist and visual arts educator who worked primarily in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She produced watercolor paintings of plants and flowers, was one of the cofounders of the city's Handicraft Guild and also worked as an arts educator in the Minneapolis Public Schools.

George Hines Lowery Jr. was an American ornithologist and professor of zoology at Louisiana State University, who pioneered a technique for studying nocturnal bird migration by large-scale observation through telescopes across the United States of America of flocks of birds as they flew at night in front of the face of the moon.

Emma Gertrude Cummings was an American horticulturalist and ornithologist.

Thomas Sadler Roberts Bird Sanctuary

The Thomas Sadler Roberts Bird Sanctuary is situated within Lyndale Park, a Minneapolis city park on the northeast side of Lake Harriet and part of Minneapolis’ Chain of Lakes Regional Park. The main entrance to the sanctuary is in the Lyndale Park Gardens parking lot. Trailheads are accessible through the back of the Peace Garden, and from the parking lot northeast of the Lake Harriet bandshell.

Thomas G. Gentry American ornithologist and writer

Thomas George Gentry was an American educator, ornithologist, naturalist and animal rights writer. Gentry authored an early work applying the term intelligence to plants.

David Frank McKinney (1928–2001) was a British-born ornithologist and ethologist, who worked in Canada and the USA and specialized in the social behavior of waterfowl.