Bowdoin Graduate Olin “Sewall” Pettingill Jr., Class of 1930

Sewall and Eleanor Pettingill, 1953 Disney Studios publicity photograph

Olin Pettingill (1907-2001), referred to mainly as “Sewall,” is one of the country’s most distinguished ornithologists. As a teenager growing up in Belgrade, Maine, Pettingill said he preformed “marginally well in school,” yet he refused to consider any college other than Bowdoin. In order to be admitted, Pettingill attended an extra year of high school at Kents Hill in Readfield, and was accepted to and enrolled at Bowdoin in the fall of 1926.

While at Bowdoin, Pettingill studied under Alfred Gross, which led to the development of his interest in ornithology. While studying with Gross, Pettingill had the opportunity to observe the last three remaining male Heath Hens — the species Gross had worked to try and save — perform their mating dance. In the summer of 1928, Pettingill preformed his first research at the University of Michigan Biological Station on Hermit Thrushes. He went on to write his dissertation on the American Woodcock.

Pettingill wrote many articles and bird-finding books, conducted research, filmed birds for Walt Disney films and published Ornithology in Laboratory and Field, which was the most widely used college ornithology text. However, Pettingill most wanted to be known as a teacher. He taught at Carleton College for 17 years and at the University of Michigan Biological Station for 35 summers. He was considered to be a demanding teacher, and was described in his obituary as having a “somewhat serious demeanor, mixed with a dry sense of humor.”

The recipient of numerous awards and accolades — such as the Arthur A. Allen Medal from the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, the Ludlow Griscom Award from the American Birding Association, and the Eugene Eisenmann Medal from the Linnaean Society of New York — Pettingill also held high-ranking positions in numerous biological and ornithological organizations. He was a fellow in the American Ornithologists Union, president of the Wilson Ornithological Society, director of the National Audubon Society, and many more.