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FERNOW, BERNHARD EDUARD, forester and educator; b. 7 Jan. 1851 in Inowrazlaw (Inowrocław, Poland), son of Eduard Ernst Leopold Fernow, a lawyer, and his second wife, Clara Nordman; m. 20 June 1879 Olivia Reynolds in Brooklyn (New York City), and they had a daughter, who died young, and four sons; d. 6 Feb. 1923 in Toronto.

From a Prussian family of middling rank, Bernhard Eduard Fernow received his early education at the gymnasium in Bromberg (Bydgoszcz). Subsequent study at the forest academy in Münden (Germany) was interrupted for service as a lieutenant in the Franco-German War and then by a year in law at the University of Königsberg. Upon graduation from Münden with a licence to practise forestry, he went into the Prussian forest service. He became engaged to a New Yorker, Olivia Reynolds, followed her to the United States in 1876, and was made an American citizen in 1883.

Fernow had secured a job in 1878 or 1879 managing the Pennsylvania woodlot and charcoal furnace of Cooper, Hewitt and Company, iron manufacturers. In April 1882 he attended the first American Forestry Congress, in Cincinnati, Ohio. Thanks to the interest of groups such as the Quebec Limitholders’ Association and the Fruit Growers’ Association of Ontario, the second meeting was held in Montreal the following August [see James Little*; George Bryson*]. The congress gave Fernow a valuable platform to advance his views on the need to introduce German ideas about scientific forestry into North America. He quickly gained attention as a rising star; in Quebec he found an ally in politician Henri-Gustave Joly*. Fernow’s experience with private woodlands and state forestry in Europe meshed well with Progressive Era ideas about government and forest resources. He had a clear preference for vigorous public policy to ensure their rational development: conservation meant efficient usage and long-term viability, overseen by specially trained personnel. In 1886 he became the first professional forester to head the forestry division of the United States Department of Agriculture.

Awarded an honorary lld by the University of Wisconsin in 1896, Fernow left the federal service two years later to assume the directorship of the recently established New York State College of Forestry at Cornell University in Ithaca. A popular and stimulating teacher, he enjoyed social gatherings with his students, and he impressed many with his abilities as a dancer, pianist, and horseman. In June 1903, however, the functions of the college were suspended amid controversy over the management of its experimental forest tract. For the next four years Fernow worked as a consulting forest engineer and taught, notably at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., where his lectures became the basis of a book on the history of forestry. He was editor of Forest Quarterly (Ithaca) from 1903 to 1916, and then of its successor, the Journal of Forestry (Washington), to 1922. In January 1903 he had given a series of impressive lectures in Kingston, Ont., at Queen’s College, which granted him an lld later that year. Both Queen’s, with its associated School of Mining and Agriculture, and the University of Toronto had an interest in establishing a forestry program. The provincial royal commission on the University of Toronto, which consulted with Fernow during its work in 1905–6, recommended a school of forestry there.

Fernow had provisionally agreed to establish a program at Pennsylvania State College when, in 1907, he accepted Toronto’s offer to become its dean of forestry. Established on 28 March, the faculty became the first such academic unit in Canada. As its head until 1919, Fernow would stamp its curriculum with his ideas about forestry and train a generation of professional foresters. Argumentative and often tactless, he held firm views about the management and conservation of forests that did not always agree with political estimates. He took exception to the extractive, revenue-oriented forest policies of Ontario and its overly optimistic estimates of usable forests and northern lands. Clashes with successive ministers of lands, forests, and mines (Francis Cochrane* and William Howard Hearst*, both northerners), deputy minister Aubrey White*, and commercial lumbermen resulted. A frequent consultant, Fernow was the founding president of the Canadian Society of Forest Engineers in 1908 and he served on the federal Commission of Conservation from 1910 to 1923. His surveys for this commission of the Trent Canal watershed in Ontario and Nova Scotia’s timber resources are especially notable pieces of work. He played no role, however, in the creation of the Forest Products Laboratories, established within the Department of the Interior in 1913 and situated at McGill University in Montreal. Though an active teacher, prolific writer, and assiduous administrator, by World War I he was not on the cutting edge of ideas about reforestation, fire prevention, or the exploitation of specific species.

Accused during the war of not encouraging students to volunteer for service and badgered over his German origins, Fernow took pains to address his students about their patriotic duties. Still an American citizen, he avoided getting caught up in 1915 in the “German professors issue,” which saw three university members forced out of their positions. Nevertheless, and though his sons had enlisted in the American forces, his wife was forced to stop teaching German to forestry students who needed it for the fourth-year seminar on German silvicultural literature. On 22 June 1918 university president Sir Robert Alexander Falconer* told her husband that German must be only an option.

In increasingly poor health, by 1917 Fernow had begun to think about retirement. He attempted to interest the university in Harvey Reginald MacMillan*, a forestry graduate from Yale, but it was a colleague, Clifton Durant Howe, who succeeded him in 1919. Appointed emeritus professor and given a doctorate by Toronto in 1920, Fernow continued to live on Admiral Road, north of the campus. In 1922 Cornell named its forestry building Fernow Hall in his honour. He died a year later. Following a service in Toronto, his body was cremated and his ashes were taken to his summer home at Point Breeze, N.Y., and strewn on Lake Ontario. His death was widely noted and mourned by the forestry profession in Canada and the United States.

Though certainly not the founder of professional forestry in North America, Fernow, more than any other individual, played a formative role in its development in two countries. Indeed, his career illustrates the important scientific dimension to the North American struggle for the benefits of national forest resources. MacMillan’s observation in a letter to Howe, that Fernow “was, and will remain the most outstanding Forester in Canada for many years,” has not lost its force.

James P. Hull

The April 1923 issue of the Journal of Forestry (Washington) contains a long section devoted to Fernow’s death (vol.21, pp.305–48), which also provides a chronology of his life and a bibliography of his writings. Fernow’s books include Economics of forestry: a reference book for students of political economy and professional and lay students of forestry (New York, 1902; repr. 1972); A brief history of forestry in Europe, the United States and other countries (New Haven, Conn., 1907), based on his lectures at Yale (a revised edition was published in Toronto in 1911); and The care of trees, in lawn, street, and park: with a list of trees and shrubs for decorative use (New York, 1910). His surveys for the Commission of Conservation appeared as Forest conditions of Nova Scotia (Ottawa, 1912) and Committee on Forests, Trent watershed survey; a reconnaissance (Toronto, 1913).

AO, RG 22-305, no.50692; RG 80-8-0-909, no.1868. UTA, A1967-0007; A1972-0018; A1972-0025; A1973-0026/101(53); A1976-0006; A1979-0015. American forests: nature, culture, and politics, ed. Char Miller (Lawrence, Kans., 1997). Biographical dictionary of American and Canadian naturalists and environmentalists, ed. K. B. Sterling et al. (Westport, Conn., 1997). Canadian annual rev., 190715. Forest and wildlife science in America: a history, ed. H. K. Steen ([Durham, N.C.], 1999). R. P. Gillis and T. R. Roach, Lost initiatives: Canada’s forest industries, forest policy and forest conservation (Westport, 1986). L. H. Gulick, American forest policy, a study of government administration and economic control (New York, 1951). C. D. Howe, “Bernhard Eduard Fernow  an appreciation,” Illustrated Canadian Forestry Magazine (Ottawa), 19 (1923): 16869. H. V. Nelles, The politics of development: forests, mines & hydro-electric power in Ontario, 18491941 (Toronto, 1974). Peter Oliver, G. Howard Ferguson: Ontario Tory (Toronto, 1977). Ont., Royal commission on the University of Toronto, Report (Toronto, 1906). A. D. Rodgers, Bernhard Eduard Fernow, a story of North American forestry (Princeton, N.J., 1951; repr., Durham, 1991). J. W. B. Sisam, Forestry education at Toronto (Toronto, 1961). H. K. Steen, The U.S. Forest Service: a history (Seattle, 1976).

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

James P. Hull, “FERNOW, BERNHARD EDUARD,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 15, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 22, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/fernow_bernhard_eduard_15E.html.

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Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/fernow_bernhard_eduard_15E.html
Author of Article:   James P. Hull
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 15
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   2005
Year of revision:   2005
Access Date:   September 22, 2023