Bowdoin Professor Alfred Gross

Alfred Gross (1883-1970) was a professor loyal to Bowdoin. Although he was offered a post at a university claiming to carry far more prestige than Bowdoin, he turned it down, saying, “I would never lean on any institution for prestige. My status was dependent on my own accomplishments. I was pleased to have the offer but I am glad I never was tempted to leave Bowdoin.”

Gross grew up on a farm in Illinois. However, he had no interest in farm work, and decided to pursue an education. He was given his first exposure to ornithology as a junior at the University of Illinois, when the director of the Illinois Natural History Laboratory gave him the job of directing the Illinois Statistical Ornithological Survey.

After receiving his Ph.D. from Harvard, Gross began teaching at Bowdoin. Although he enjoyed teaching, Gross was a devoted researcher who contributed prolifically to the study of ornithology; he was the author of 265 scientific articles and books, and was recognized as a Fellow of the American Ornithologists’ Union in 1930.

Some of Gross’ research highlights include his studies of the Heath Hen (and his efforts, although unsuccessful, to save it from extinction), the Ruffled Grouse, and the population of Common Eider’s on Kent Island — the site of the Bowdoin Scientific Station. He later returned to the island with undergraduates to study the Herring Gull and Leach’s Storm Petrel. His son, William Gross, was then an undergraduate at Bowdoin and observed seabirds on the island with three other students while his father was serving as the ornithologist for MacMillan’s expedition to the Arctic. William went on to both persuade Rockefeller to sell the island to Bowdoin and then helped to create the Bowdoin Scientific Station in 1935.

Although Gross was professional and somewhat withdrawn when on the Bowdoin campus or in the classroom, that attitude was starkly contrasted with his demeanor in the field or in his home, where he was described by his obituary to be “a warm, considerate person with a streak of gentle humor.” Both students and faculty admired him, and a large number of his students went on to become professional biologists. When he died in 1970, Gross presented his ornithological library to the college. The papers can be seen in Bowdoin’s Hawthorne and Longfellow Library in Special Collections.