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Abbey, Edward (29 January 1927–14 March 1989), essayist, novelist, and radical ecologist, was born in Home, Pennsylvania, the son of Paul Revere Abbey, a farmer, and Mildred Postlewaite, a public schoolteacher. He was raised, with four siblings, on a hardscrabble farm. A turning point in late adolescence came out of some months of hitchhiking around the western United States, with which he ever after fervently identified himself....

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Isaac Asimov Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-115121).

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Asimov, Isaac (02 January 1920–06 April 1992), writer, was born in Petrovichi, USSR, the son of Judah Asimov, a merchant, and Anna Rachel Berman. Asimov’s Russian-Jewish father and mother emigrated to New York City in 1923. After a number of years working odd jobs, they bought a candy store in Brooklyn in 1926, the first of many in that borough that Asimov would help run until he was twenty-two years old. Working long hours in the candy store left Asimov’s parents with little time to raise their children. His mother was especially hard on him, frequently hitting him when she lost her temper and reminding him that he was responsible for their hand-to-mouth existence. Asimov was a precocious child who taught himself to read before he was five, and he read omnivorously thereafter. At seven he taught his younger sister to read, “somewhat against her will,” he confesses in his memoir, ...

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Bancroft, Edward (09 January 1744–08 September 1821), physician, scientist, and spy, was born in Westfield, Massachusetts, the son of Edward Bancroft and Mary Ely, farmers. The elder Bancroft died in 1746 of an epileptic attack suffered in a pigpen, two months before the birth of his younger son, Daniel. His widow married David Bull of Westfield in 1751, and the family moved to Hartford, Connecticut, where Bull operated the Bunch of Grapes tavern. Edward Bancroft was taught for a time by the recent Yale graduate ...

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Beach, Alfred Ely (01 September 1826–01 January 1896), magazine publisher and inventor, was born in Springfield, Massachusetts, the son of Moses Yale Beach, a newspaper publisher, and Nancy Day. His father was apprenticed as a cabinetmaker but rose through a series of businesses to become owner and publisher of the New York ...

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Beach, Moses Yale (07 January 1800–19 July 1868), journalist and inventor, was born in Wallingford, Connecticut, the son of Moses Sperry Beach and Lucretia (Stanley) Yale, farmers. (Some sources cite 15 January as his birth date.) With some common school education, young Moses demonstrated mechanical ingenuity and was apprenticed to a cabinetmaker at age fourteen. By working overtime he was able to buy his freedom in four years, and he set up a cabinet shop of his own in Northampton, Massachusetts. He married Nancy Day of Springfield in either 1819 or 1821 (sources conflict); the couple would have eight children. (It is possible that he married a second time, but the evidence is not firm.)...

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Brewer, Thomas Mayo (21 November 1814–23 January 1880), ornithologist and journalist, was born in Boston, Massachusetts, the son of James Brewer, a colonel in the revolutionary war (mother’s name unknown). He graduated from Harvard College in 1835 and from Harvard Medical School three years later. After a few years of practice in Boston’s North End, Brewer virtually abandoned medicine in favor of journalism and natural history....

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Archibald Bruce. Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine (B03753).

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Bruce, Archibald ( February 1777–22 February 1818), physician, mineralogist, and editor, was born in New York City, the son of William Bruce, a British army medical officer, and Judith Bayard Van Rensselaer. Despite his father’s expressed wish, Bruce pursued medical education and practice. After taking an A.B. at Columbia College in 1797, he continued his studies in New York and then moved on to Edinburgh (M.D., 1800). As was common in this period, his medical education included exposure to the natural sciences, and Bruce developed a lifelong interest in mineralogy. After completing his M.D., he extended his European stay with travels on the Continent to study mineralogy and collect materials for his own mineralogical cabinet....

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John Cassin Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-101868).

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Cassin, John (06 September 1813–10 January 1869), ornithologist and printing company executive, was born near the present site of Media, Pennsylvania, the son of Thomas Cassin, a Quaker farmer, and Rachel Sharpless. Cassin attended a Quaker School in Westtown, Pennsylvania, and studied under private tutors. His interest in natural history developed as the result of the emphasis placed on the subject by Quaker schools at that time; this proved decisive in Cassin’s choice of avocation. He began observing and identifying birds on the family property in his mid-teens, and as an adult he regretted that he had not gotten out into the field more often to go birdwatching. At age twenty-one he went to Philadelphia, where he worked first in merchandising and then at the U.S. Customs House. When J. T. Bowen, an engraver and lithographer, died, Cassin assumed the management of Bowen’s firm and continued to supply illustrations for various scientific books and periodicals and for federal government publications....

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Chamberlin, Rollin Thomas (20 October 1881–06 March 1948), teacher, editor, and structural and glacial geologist, was born in Beloit, Wisconsin, the son of Alma Isabel Wilson and Thomas Chrowder Chamberlin, a geologist and educator. He was married in 1922 to Dorothy Ingalls Smith; they had three children....

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Coolidge, Dane (24 March 1873–08 August 1940), novelist, naturalist, and photographer, was born in Natick, Massachusetts, the son of Francis Coolidge, a corporal in the Civil War and, later, an orange grower in California, and Sophia Upham Whittemore. He moved with his family in 1877 to Los Angeles, where he roamed the fields and mountains around that still-small town and grew up a Republican and a Unitarian. Coolidge graduated from Stanford University in 1898, then studied biology at Harvard University from 1898 to 1899 before returning to the West....

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William Darlington. Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine (B05853).

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Darlington, William (28 April 1782–23 April 1863), physician, botanist, and author, was born in Chester County, Pennsylvania, the son of Edward Darlington, a farmer who also found time to serve in the Pennsylvania legislature, and Hannah Townsend. Wanting to escape the drudgery of farm work that had restricted his schooling to a few winter months each year, at age eighteen Darlington persuaded his father to pay the necessary fees for his apprenticeship to study medicine with John Vaughan in Wilmington, Delaware. In return, his father required that he give up his inheritance of a share of the family farm....

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Davis, Watson (29 April 1896–27 June 1967), science writer and editor, was born in Washington, D.C., the son of Charles Allan Davis, a high-school principal, and Maud Watson, a teacher. Davis attended George Washington University, where he received a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering in 1918 and a civil engineering degree in 1920. In 1919 he married Helen Augusta Miles, a fellow student and a chemist; they had two children....

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Deutsch, Albert (23 October 1905–21 June 1961), historian and journalist, was born in New York City, the son of Barnett Deutsch and Kate Knopke. Raised on the Lower East Side, Deutsch was the fourth of nine children in a poor Jewish family that had recently emigrated from Latvia. At the age of five, following an accident, his right eye had to be enucleated. He was largely self-educated. Before finishing high school, he left home and traveled around the United States, working as a longshoreman, a field hand, and a shipyard worker. While on the road, he continued his education in public libraries around the country....

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Djerassi, Carl (29 Oct. 1923–30 Jan. 2015), organic chemist, novelist, and playwright, was born in Vienna, Austria, the only child of the Samuel Djerassi (Bulgarian) and Alice Friedmann (Austrian), both assimilated Jews. Samuel was a physician who specialized in the treatment of venereal diseases, calling himself a dermatologist to protect his wealthy clients’ reputations. Alice was a dentist and physician. Djerassi lived in Sofia, Bulgaria until he was five and then moved to Vienna with his mother following his parents’ divorce. He went to the same Viennese school formerly attended by Sigmund Freud. Every summer Djerassi returned to his father in Bulgaria....

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Dubos, René Jules (20 February 1901–20 February 1982), microbiologist and author, was born in Saint Brice, France, a farming community north of Paris, the son of Georges Andre Dubos, a butcher, and Adeline De Bloedt. Dubos’s parents soon moved farther into the countryside to the tiny village of Henonville, where René attended a one-room school until the family moved to Paris in 1914. The family’s economic uncertainties worsened when his father died after serving in World War I. During his childhood Dubos suffered from episodes of rheumatic fever, which led to the cardiac damage common before antibiotics. These severe illnesses, together with extremely poor eyesight, restricted his youthful activities and had a permanent impact on his life....

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Eiseley, Loren Corey (03 September 1907–09 July 1977), anthropologist, writer, and philosopher of science, was born in Lincoln, Nebraska, the only son of Clyde Edwin Eiseley, an amateur actor turned hardware salesman, and Daisey Corey, a self-educated artist. The family’s financial instability and his mother’s handicap (she was deaf and, as he later wrote, “always on the brink of mental collapse”) made his formative years in Nebraska a time of profound isolation. For solace, he turned to the Nebraska prairie and its fauna. He enrolled in the University of Nebraska in 1925, but physical and psychological crises kept him from graduating until eight years later. Near the end of his life, he recalled dropping out of college at least three times—to work in a poultry hatchery, to recuperate from tuberculosis in Colorado and the Mojave Desert (1928–1929), and to drift, riding the rails in the West (1930–1931). His father’s death in 1928 brought Eiseley to the brink of mental collapse. During this period, however, he worked on his first archaeological dig, published his first poetry, and cultivated a deep affinity for animals and landscape. In the same year he finished college (1933) Eiseley went to the University of Pennsylvania for graduate work in anthropology. He earned his Ph.D. in 1937, completing a dissertation titled “Three Indices of Quaternary Time and Their Bearing upon Pre-History: A Critique.” With this work an intensely private man began an unexpected career as a prominent public intellectual and literary naturalist....