MISSOULA – Morton J. Elrod became the University of Montana’s first professor of biology in 1897 and founded the Flathead Lake Biological Station a few years later. Now his decades-long career as one of the state’s foremost scientific minds is the subject of a new biography titled “Montana’s Pioneer Naturalist: Morton J. Elrod.”
Released this month by the University of Oklahoma Press, the 280-page biography was written by historian George M. Dennison, who led UM as president from 1990 to 2010.
“As I set out to research and write the history of UM, I sought to find a way to avoid or at least to broaden the tight institutional focus,” Dennison said. “To do so, I opted to begin by capturing the perspective of a single faculty member present virtually from the founding and, if possible, trace the contributions of personal and professional development to that of the institution. Morton J. Elrod immediately emerged as the best possible choice because of his stature in the university and the availability of his collected papers and photographs, which were largely unexamined by scholars.”
Elrod was a Renaissance man with diverse interests. He was an accomplished photographer, a skill that he used to document ecological survey expeditions conducted from the biological station, which was one of the nation’s first freshwater laboratories. Specimens from these early expeditions resulted in Montana’s first zoological collection, now the Philip L. Wright Zoological Museum at UM.
Elrod immediately began studying Flathead Lake and the Crown of the Continent ecosystem. He promoted and conducted ecological research and education in the region, hosted famous naturalists of that era, established a science program and summer field courses at the biological station, and wrote prolifically. Early students and researchers arrived at the biological station at Yellow Bay by horse or steamboat, and Elrod served as the biological station’s director until 1933.
“This one man helped shape the scholarly study of nature and its institutionalization in the West at the turn of the century,” Dennison said.
Additionally, Elrod played a role in the creation and promotion of Glacier National Park, was its first naturalist and wrote its first guidebook and scientific papers. He also helped establish the National Bison Range and operated Montana’s first weather station from his home in Missoula.
“Morton Elrod is a really amazing character from our past in Montana, UM and the biological station,” said Tom Bansak, the station’s assistant director. “On campus in Missoula, he also started the Kaimin newspaper and launched UM student government. His productivity and history are just amazing.”
The new book is available from online booksellers, the Bookstore at UM, in many Montana bookstores and directly from the University of Oklahoma Press.