Stephen Alfred Forbes
Nature Bulletin No. 309-A June 1, 1968
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Richard B. Ogilvie, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation
STEPHEN ALFRED FORBES (1844 - 1930)
In the early 1900's their was a tall, dignified elderly man who walked
through the hallways of the Natural History Building on the campus of
the University of Illinois. He had strong handsome features, deep-set
eyes, a neat gray military mustache, a wisp of beard on his lower lip,
and wore a wing collar. With eyes straight ahead and quick measured
steps, he always gave the impression of marching. He banged all doors
behind him. He was Professor Forbes, the first Chief of the Illinois
Natural History Survey -- a many-sided man with a long career of trail-
May 29 was the anniversary of the birth, in 1844, of Stephen Alfred
Forbes on a pioneer farm in Stephenson County in northern Illinois.
Other than the local district school, his only formal education was a
year at Beloit Academy and, after his army service, a year at Rush
Medical College in Chicago and one term at the Illinois State Normal
School. As a boy of 17 he enlisted in the 7th Illinois Cavalry and
served, finally as captain of his company, until the end of the Civil War.
It is characteristic of him that, during four months in a southern prison,
though suffering from scurvy, malaria and starvation, he studied Greek.
He was thoroughly self-educated. After he had become famous as a
scholar and a teacher of science, he told a friend that he never received
an hour of formal instruction in any of the subjects he had taught.
was undoubtedly the pioneer in securing the introduction of the
study of the natural sciences into the educational system of Illinois at a
time when these subjects were eyed askance by educational authorities.
From the time he came to the University of Illinois in 1884 when it was
a small rural institution -- serving as a professor, dean of the College of
Science for 17 years, and as chairman of the faculty committee on
educational policy -- he exerted a powerful influence on the
development of that great university during its amazing growth.
However, the dominant motive of his long life was scientific research
devoted to public service. With him, research came as natural as
breathing and he was, in turn, prophet, priest and patriarch of three
succeeding generations of scientists, making profound contributions in
each with a mind eternally youthful. He is recognized as the founder of
more than one of the modern branches of the biological sciences.
In 1877 he founded the Illinois State Laboratory of Natural History and
began to issue simple clear accounts of his pioneer investigations of the
foods of birds, of fishes, and insects. Above all, he was aware of and
pointed out the interrelationships of plants and animals to each other
and to their environment: their ecology. In 1882 he was appointed state
entomologist and, during the next forty years, his reports on economic
insects and their control affected, to a marked degree, the agricultural
practices and development of Illinois and the Corn Belt. Today, his
students and their students, all over the world, still draw inspiration
from over 400 scientific papers written in his lucid appealing style. His
program of scientific forestry, his studies of the fishes and the biology
of the Illinois River, and his far-seeing tireless work for the welfare of
his home state will never be forgotten.
He left deep footprints on the sands of time.
To return to the Nature Bulletins Click Here!
Update: June 2012