Peterson, Roger Tory (1908-1996) was an American artist, naturalist, and author. His detailed, colorful, nearly photographic illustrations of birds led to the development of a popular series of nature handbooks called the Peterson Field Guide Series. His work added greatly to the identification and appreciation of animals in their natural environment, furthering wildlife conservation concerns.
Peterson was born on Aug. 28, 1908, in Jamestown, New York. He was one of two children of Charles Gustav Peterson, a Swedish immigrant and craftsman in a local furniture factory, and Henrietta Bader Peterson. As a boy, Peterson's love of birds began when his seventh-grade science teacher organized a junior club of the National Audubon Society, one of the oldest and largest national conservation organizations in the world. Peterson began studying, photographing, and drawing birds, and soon began painting birds.
After graduating from high school in 1925, he took a job painting lacquered Chinese cabinets in a factory in Jamestown. In 1927, he enrolled in the Art Students League in New York City. He studied at the League until 1928 and then at the National Academy of Design until 1931. Peterson continued bird watching in New York City.
In 1931, Peterson became an instructor of science and art at the Rivers Country Day School in Brookline, Massachusetts. During three years of teaching there, he collected his illustrations and methods of identifying birds in a book. Called Field Guide to the Birds, it was published in 1934. His publishers immediately recognized the merit of Peterson's unique guide. Containing 500 pictures of 425 species, it was simple and easy to use, with arrows pointing to color patterns, feathers, tails, and other characteristics. The birds were shown in natural poses, as they could be seen in the field.
The Field Guide immediately became successful, selling 2,000 copies in its first week of publication. It appealed to amateur bird watchers as well as professional ornithologists (those who scientifically study birds). Millions of copies of the Field Guide and its revised editions were sold by the early 1990's.
In 1934, Peterson became education director of the National Audubon Society in New York, a job that included rewriting the Junior Audubon leaflets that had first sparked his interest in birds. He worked as art editor of what is now the Audubon magazine from 1934 to 1943. World War II (1939–1945) took him to the Army Engineer Corps from 1943 to 1945, mainly at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, where he prepared technical manuals. He also studied the effects of DDT, an insecticide that was found to endanger animal life, including birds and fish.
After the war, Peterson became editor of the Peterson Field Guide Series, which were expanded to include guides on birds of Europe and Mexico, and other animals, plants, and minerals. Through the years, Peterson traveled to many parts of the United States, Europe, Central America, and Africa. He collected material and took photographs for his articles and books, becoming an expert wildlife photographer. His articles, photographs, and paintings appeared in many magazines, including National Geographic, Field and Stream, Ranger Rick, Life, Audubon, Nature, and Reader's Digest.
Peterson wrote, cowrote, or edited about 50 books, including Birds Over America (1948), How to Know the Birds (1949), Wildlife in Color (1951), The Birds (1963), and Penguins (1979). With James Fisher, a naturalist, Peterson wrote Wild America (1955) and The World of Birds (1964).
In 1986, Peterson and several colleagues founded the Roger Tory Peterson Institute of Natural History in Jamestown. In 1993, the specially designed building for the Institute opened.
Peterson belonged to many wildlife and conservation associations and received many honors and awards. In 1944, he won the highest award in the field of ornithology, the William Brewster Memorial Medal, awarded by the American Ornithologists' Union for his contribution to ornithology. He received the Medal of Freedom from President Jimmy Carter in 1980 and the Linnaeus Gold Medal of the Swedish Academy of Sciences in 1976.