Our Deepest Roots: Nicholas School’s 25 Years of Success Owes Much to the Three Programs From Which it Formed

November 9, 2015

By Norman L. Christensen

Twenty-five years ago this past May, an ad hoc Committee on Environmental Programs presented its ndings to the Duke University Board of Trustees. The committee observed that arbitrary boundaries—boundaries between academic disciplines, governance units, basic and applied science, teaching and research—are among the most signicant challenges to the sustainable conservation and management of Earth’s environmental resources. Duke, they argued, was uniquely positioned to meet these challenges, and that it should seize the opportunity by creating a School of the Environment. The trustees agreed and unanimously resolved that such a school—one of the rst of its kind in the world— should come into being on July 1, 1991.

The committee’s recommendation and the board’s resolution were indeed prescient. Today, the Nicholas School of the Environment is recognized worldwide as a center of excellence for interdisciplinary education and research focused on our sustainable future. Duke’s long history of interdisciplinary collaborations, the consistent support from university leaders, and the contributions of time and resources from many friends and alumni are certainly among the factors contributing to its success.

As we approach our silver anniversary, it is especially important to remember that our school was not created ex nihilo, out of nothing; it owes much of its success to more than 50 years of development and evolution in each of the three programs from which it was formed: the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, the Duke University Marine Laboratory and the Department of Geology. But how were these three programs created? To a greater or lesser extent, the energy and vision of one individual, Arthur Sperry Pearse, was important to the genesis of each one.

Flush with resources from James B. Duke’s remarkable gift, Duke President William Preston Few began searching in the mid-1920s for new faculty who would help him transform his then small college into a complex, internationally recognized university. University of Wisconsin ecologist A.S. Pearse seemed like just the person to lead Duke’s biology program into this new era.

Pearse was widely recognized for the quality and remarkable diversity of his work. In addition to pioneering studies of freshwater lake plankton, he had recently published important work on the ecology of parasitic diseases such as hookworm and yellow fever. He had just completed a term as president of the Ecological Society of America and published the rst textbook ever in animal ecology. Convincing Pearse to join Duke’s faculty in 1927 was indeed a recruitment coup.

School of Forestry

Included in Duke’s gift were nearly 5,000 acres of land surrounding what would soon become Duke University’s West Campus. These lands clearly played a role in attracting Pearse to Duke. In 1926 and 1927 letters to President Few, he not only noted the opportunities that they would provide biological studies, but suggested that they could be the foundation for the creation of a graduate school of forestry similar to the distinguished program at Yale, but focusing on southeastern forests. In pursuit of this vision, Pearse contacted the director of the Forest Service Southeastern Experimental Station, E.H. Frothingham, asking for guidance. Frothingham directed him to an up-and-coming forest ecologist, Clarence Korstian, who had himself been trained at Yale.

After visiting with both men, Pearse convinced Few to meet with Korstian in 1927. Initially, Few was most interested in the question of what to do with the land and asked Korstian whether Duke ought to dedicate it formally for teaching and research, much as Harvard and Yale had done with their eponymous forests.

Primed by Pearse, Korstian replied that, given the growing importance of forests and forestry in the Southeast, such a forest would indeed be valuable, but it “ought to be organized as a very denite adjunct to a graduate school of forestry.” He argued further that training and research in such a forest and school should not be limited to what people could extract from forests, as “this had led in the past to men receiving a limited education in forestry.” A Duke Forest and School of Forestry ought to focus on the long-term conservation of forests and all of the values that they provide.

Subsequent to this meeting, Pearse wrote to forestry schools and departments at Michigan, Cornell, Yale and Syracuse for information on their faculty and curricula, which he then forwarded to Few. After continued conversations over several years, and with the promise that a forestry school would be created eventually, Few convinced Korstian to come to Duke in 1930 to direct the newly dedicated Duke Forest. Over the next several years, Korstian rened his vision for a Duke School of Forestry, and The Board of Trustees enthusiastically supported that vision and voted to approve creation of the school in 1938.

Innovation and interdisciplinary collaboration in both education and research were embedded in the cultural genome of the School of Forestry from the moment of its creation. The school’s mission was centered on Korstian’s vision for “ecological forestry,” what today we call sustainable forestry. From the beginning, the school’s faculty was highly interdisciplinary, including ecology, economics, management, forest pathology, soil chemistry and wood technology.

Because of their unique training, the graduates of the school’s Master of Forestry (MF) program were widely recruited to leadership positions with both private companies and public agencies. The school was renamed Forestry and Environmental Studies in 1970, and its priorities and mix of disciplines subsequently expanded to include such topics as environmental policy, biodiversity conservation, water quality management, wetlands, and environmental toxicology. Interdisciplinary education to meet an ever growing list of environmental challenges was the centerpiece of the school’s newly created professional Master of Environmental Management (MEM) program.

Duke University Marine Lab

Arthur Pearse’s vision and energy also were central to the creation of the Duke University Marine Laboratory. About the same time he was connecting Duke to Clarence Korstian, he was educating President Few and the Duke Board of Trustees about the increasing importance of coastal issues and marine biology, and about the potential of establishing year-round teaching and research facility on the North Carolina coast.

He and other Duke colleagues explored a number of potential sites for such a facility, and they became convinced that Piver’s Island, a 20-or-so acre piece of land near the town of Beaufort, would be ideal. In addition to its accessibility and location on the central coast, the presence of the Federal Fisheries Laboratory (now the NOAA Mid-Atlantic Coastal Fisheries Center) on the north end of the island made this location ideal.

In 1935, the Duke Trustees voted to move forward with the purchase of the south portion of the Piver’s Island. Over the next three years, three small dorms, a two-room building for classes, and boathouse and dock were built. In the summer of 1938, 16 students and several faculty decamped on the island and the Duke University Marine Laboratory was born.

Up to 1950, the Marine Lab served largely as an outpost for studies and a relative few summer courses offered by Durham campus biologists. It was in that year that C.G. Bookhout was appointed as the Marine Lab’s rst full-time director. Bookie, as he has affectionately known by everyone, had been among the rst faculty to teach at the lab, and he energetically pursued Pearse’s vision of it as a year-round teaching and research center.

Material dredged from the nearby Gallant’s Channel was added to the south end of Piver’s Island. This allowed lab to add three new buildings in 1954 and an additional dormitory in 1963. In collaboration with the University of North Carolina’s Institute of Marine Studies, Marine Lab faculty convinced the National Science Foundation to locate a new oceanographic research vessel, the R/V Eastward, at the lab in 1961. The R/V Eastward was replaced by the R/V Cape Hatteras in 1981.

With these facilities and resources, the lab was able to recruit a diverse resident faculty who held primary appointments in the departments of zoology, botany, cell biology, and geology. The hands-on learning and the seamless integration of research and education were the hallmark of lab’s undergraduate and graduate programs from the very beginning.

Department of Geology

In a 1930 letter to distinguished ecologist and Wisconsin colleague Chancey Juday, Pearse noted that Duke’s programs in the natural sciences were still very much in the development stage. He made particular note of the fact that the university had no faculty in the earth sciences. Indeed, it would be another six years before Duke hired Willard Berry, its rst geologist.

Although I could nd no written conrmation, I believe we can be pretty sure that Pearse was prominent among those supporting Berry’s appointment. However, geology remained a one-man outt until 1949 when Duncan Heron was recruited. Orrin Pilkey, a sedimentologist turned coastal dynamics guru, joined the department in 1965. Faculty were gradually added so that by the mid-1980s, the department had grown to include faculty programs in paleontology, the dynamics of Earth’s crust, seashore change, oceanography, and hydrology, to name a few.

For most of these years the department was housed in the Art Museum on Duke’s East Campus. Because of the integration of Duke’s Geology Department, the Nicholas School is unique among environmental programs in representing the full diversity of environmental science. But just as important as bona fides in the physical sciences, geology brought long traditions of excellence in undergraduate education and integration of basic science with its real-world applications.

The importance of these three programs to the development of the Nicholas School is evident in the identity of its three divisions: Environmental Science and Policy, Earth and Ocean Sciences, and Marine Science and Conservation. But the boundaries between these divisions have blurred, and many faculty hold appointments in more than one division.

Environment Hall which opened in April 2014, is designed to facilitate even more interaction and collaboration among divisions. Furthermore, the disciplinary composition and educational programs in each division have changed signicantly; each one now includes disciplinary expertise from social and natural sciences, and each one is heavily invested in the school’s undergraduate, professional and graduate programs. Each plays an essential role in the Nicholas School’s mission to “create knowledge and leaders for a sustainable future.”

Norman L. Christensen is founding dean of the Nicholas School and professor emeritus in the Division of Environmental Sciences and Policy.


  • A.S. Pearse’s papers, including hundreds of letters written and received over his entire career, are available in the Duke Archives. I am grateful to the staff of Duke’s David Rubenstein Library for helping me access these materials.
  • Many of the details of Clarence Korstain’s vision and the formation of the school are described in a document titled, “Clarence Korstian: Forty Years of Forestry.” This is a transcription of a 1959 interview of Korstian by Elwood R. Maunder which is available in the archives of the Forest History Society.
  • Much of the history of Piver’s Island, the Federal Fisheries Laboratory and the Duke University Marine Laboratory can be found in A Story of North Carolina’s Historic Beaufort, Wilson, M.M. 2007, The History Press, Charleston, SC.
  • My thanks to Duncan Heron for helping me understand the geological origins.