The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber


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Sherman, Althea Rosina
(October 10, 1853–April 16, 1943)

–illustrator, writer, and ornithologist—was born to Mark Bachelor Sherman and Melissa (Clark) Sherman in National, Iowa, a village of 200 residents in Clayton County. Althea attended school in farmerburg Township and later enrolled in the preparatory division of Upper Iowa University in Fayette. In 1869 she entered Oberlin College in Ohio and graduated with an A.B. in art in 1875. After teaching for several years, she returned to Oberlin and earned her master's degree in 1882. She was an instructor of drawing at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, and at schools in Wichita, Kansas, and was supervisor of drawing for the Tacoma, Washington, public schools. She also attended the Art Institute in Chicago and the Art Student's League in New York City.

    Sherman returned to National in 1895 to care for her ailing parents and stayed on in the family home following her father's death in 1896. She found National "unsuitable for progress" in the study of art. With her skills as trained observer, illustrator, and writer, and her love of the natural world, she chose to become an ornithologist. After her mother died in 1902, Sherman began her second career at the age of 50.

    Rather than killing birds to study them, Althea Sherman became a pioneer in the life study of specific bird species. Her "Acre of Birds" became a living laboratory. She sought out natural cavities and nesting sites, and added birdhouses, nesting platforms, brush piles, and bird food to the yard and barn. Her bird boxes had peepholes for viewing and hand holes for accessing the nestlings.

    Sherman subscribed to 26 scientific and ornithological journals and joined 15 scientific societies. She kept meticulously detailed journals of her observations and sent articles, field notes, and reports of her findings to scientific and ornithological journals. She corresponded with the leading researchers of the day. She created compelling, realistic illustrations of her subjects, and her paintings of the American goldfinch inspired the Iowa legislature to adopt it as the state bird. She offered the first published nesting research on screech owls and kestrels, leading to national acclaim. She was elected as a member of the American Ornithologists' Union in 1912 and was also selected for inclusion in "Who's Who of the Women of the Nation" and "American Men of Science."In 1914 she traveled 33,000 miles through Europe, the Middle East, and Asia; from her observations, she produced a series of monographs, Birds by the Wayside, which brought international acclaim.

    At her home in 1915 Sherman constructed a 28-foot-tall, 9-foot-square wooden tower to attract and observe nesting chimney swifts. A staircase wound from bottom to top through four floors and enclosed a 2-foot-square artificial chimney. Doors, windows, and peepholes allowed Sherman to be the first person to witness and record the entire nesting cycle of the swifts. Her chimney swift journals, covering 18 years and more than 400 pages, may offer the most extensive study of this species in existence. The chimney swift's tower has been historically documented as the only structure of its kind, and hundreds of people from around the world have climbed its stairs.

    Sherman pursued her science for nearly four decades and studied 38 species extensively, with research of specific species continuing from 7 to 36 years. She published more than 70 articles. Her observations revealed many previously unknown facts and, in some cases, corrected the findings of other researchers. Her thorough studies of several species were used by Arthur Cleveland Bent in his Life Histories of North American Birds series.

    In 1925 Sherman ignited controversy among ornithologists and bird lovers by indicting the house wren as a despoiler of the eggs and nestlings of other species in its territory, causing great declines in songbird populations in many areas. She blamed backyard bird lovers who created the wrens' artificially high numbers by erecting wren boxes throughout cities, towns, and farms all over the country. She implored people to tear down the wren boxes. "The Great Wren Debate" continued for the next 15 years in the scientific and popular press.

    Althea Sherman died at age 89. Physical infirmity in her later years prevented her long-held plans to publish a book, additional bird studies, and the chimney swift records.
Sources Fred J. Pierce, former editor of Iowa Bird Life, published 1,500 copies of Sherman's Birds of an Iowa Dooryard posthumously. She left over 70 journals and writings and approximately 250 pieces of her artwork to the State Historical Society of Iowa. For further information, see Sharon E. Wood, "Althea Sherman and the Birds of Prairie and Dooryard: A Scientist's Witness to Change," Palimpsest 70 (1989), 164–85; Mrs. H. J. Taylor, "Iowa's Woman Ornithologist-Althea Rosina Sherman," Iowa Bird Life: The Althea R. Sherman Memorial Issue 13 (June 1943); Barbara Boyle, "Althea Sherman: Birdwoman of Iowa," Wapsipinicon Almanac, no. 5, 127–30; Deborah Strom, ed., Birdwatching with American Women (1986); and Joseph K. Brown, "Althea Sherman," Iowan 21 (Spring 1973), 5–9.
Contributor: Barbara Boyle