A Short Biography of May Theilgaard Watts

The following is a snapshot of the Wikipedia page I helped to expand of Chicago region naturalist May Theilgaard Watts, as of November 3rd, 2018. Please view the latest version of the Wikipedia page for references and the most up-to-date version: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/May_Theilgaard_Watts

Consider directly editing the Wikipedia page if you have any recommended edits or additions. I would be happy to help you or incorporate them myself if needed. Just send me an email.

I particularly enjoyed listening to this interview with her in 1969. And, I haven’t had a chance to read the entire thesis, but the introduction to this paper by Anne M. Keller (2016) was uncannily similar to my own feelings first reading and learning about May and the natural history of the Chicago region.

May Theilgaard Watts

May Theilgaard Watts.jpg
Born May 1, 1893
Chicago, Illinois
Died 20 August 1975 (aged 82)
Naperville, Illinois
Residence Chicago; Ravinia (now Highland Park, Illinois); Naperville, Illinois
Nationality American
Alma mater B.S., University of Chicago(botany, ecology)School of the Art Institute of Chicago
Employer The Morton Arboretum
Known for Botany, illustration, poetry, natural history and outdoor education
Spouse(s) Raymond Watts

May Petrea Theilgaard Watts (1 May 1893 – 20 August 1975) was an American naturalist, writer, poet, illustrator, and educator. She was a naturalist at The Morton Arboretum and author of Reading the Landscape of America.

Early life

Watts was one of four daughters of Danish immigrants, Hermann and Claudia (Anderson) Theilgaard. Her father was a garden designer and first introduced her to plants and botany, teaching her Latin names before she learned common names. She grew up in the Ravenswood neighborhood of Chicago, Illinois and attended Lake View High School.

Education and early career

She began her teaching career in 1911, at the age of 18, as a public school teacher. She taught at several locations in northeastern Illinois between 1911–1924: MidlothianArlington HeightsWilmette, and her alma mater in Chicago, Lake View High School.

She attended college during the summers at the University of Chicago, where she studied botany and ecology under Henry Chandler Cowles. In 1916, Watts went on a field trip with Cowles and other ecology students that “toured the Lake Superior region…In five weeks, the party visited sixteen towns, observed climax forests, hydrarch, bog, xerarch, and retrogressive successions, and identified numerous plants. When she returned home, [she] transformed her field notes into an eighty-seven-page expedition notebook with hand-drawn maps, photographs, and plant lists.” Watts credited Cowles as a great inspiration in her later works.

She graduated in 1918 from the University of Chicago with a Bachelor of Science and was elected to Phi Beta KappaShe married Raymond Watts, an engineer and aviator, on December 27, 1924. Watts studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1925.

Environmental activist and educator

May Theilgaard Watts and her new family moved to Ravinia, Illinois (now annexed into Highland Park, Illinois) in 1927. She became associated with a group working to preserve natural landscapes called “Friends of Our Native Landscape”, led by her neighbor Jens Jensen, and began speaking about local ecology and natural area preservation at local garden clubs. Jensen, Watts, and others worked to preserve the natural beauty of Ravinia’s ravine landscape and advocated for the use of native plants in garden design. Her house at 487 Groveland, Highland Park is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The architect for the house was John S. Van Bergen and the landscape architect was Jens Jensen.

Watts began working as a part-time teacher at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Illinois in 1939 and was hired as a full-time staff naturalist in 1942. Watts developed popular educational programming at the Arboretum including studies in botany, ecology, taxonomy, geology, gardening, sketching, nature literature, and creative writing. She also produced scientific studies as well as flower and tree identification guides.

While working at the Arboretum, she authored several books and guides that helped nonscientists to interpret the landscape. Her 1957 Reading the Landscape was among the most widely read and used for decades by educators. Watts described places ranging from backyard gardens to the Indiana Dunes to the Rocky Mountain timberline. She wrote a similar volume, Reading the Landscape of Europe. She extended her knowledge of the natural world to the public in a column written for the Chicago Tribune called Nature Afoot, and had an educational horticulture program on public television. She suffered a stroke in 1961 and retired from the Arboretum that year.

Watts led efforts to establish the Illinois Prairie Path on an abandoned railroad line. Inspired by the public footpaths of Britain and by the Appalachian Trail in the eastern United States, she believed Midwestern residents needed similar recreational trails. Her 1963 letter-to-the-editor of the Chicago Tribune warned that “bulldozers are drooling” and rapid action needed to be taken. She was honored at the 1971 dedication ceremony for the Illinois Prairie Path.


Watts has been honored with several awards:

  • 1954, Margarget Douglas Medal for conservation education, Garden Club of America
  • 1965, Du Page Audubon Society, President’s Award
  • 1966, Illinois Parks and Recreation, Special Citation
  • 1971, American Horticultural Scoiety, Citation Award for Teaching
  • 1971, U.S. Department of the Interior, National Trails Symposium award
  • 1972, Chicago Geographic Society’s Book of the Year Award for Reading the Landscape of America
  • 1972, Illinois House of Representatives citation
  • 1972, Hutchinson Medal, Chicago Horticultural Society
  • 1972, Arthur Hoyt Scott medal, Swartmore College
  • 2011, Doppelt Family Rail-Trail Champion

Death and legacy

May Theilgaard Watts died at the age of 82 on August 20, 1975 in Naperville, Illinois.

The May T. Watts Nature Park in Highland Park, May Watts Pond and the May Watts Elementary School in Naperville, and the May T. Watts Reading Garden (dedicated in 1963) at The Morton Arboretum are named in her honor.

Partial bibliography

  • Tree Finder: A Pocket Manual for Identification of Trees by Their Leaves (Naperville, Ill.: Nature Study Guild, 1939).
  • Flower Finder: A Guide to Identification of Spring Wild Flowers and Flower Families (Naperville, Ill.: Nature Study Guild, 1955).
  • Reading the Landscape: An Adventure in Ecology (New York: Macmillan, 1957).
  • Reading the landscape of Europe (New York: Harper & Row, 1971).
  • Reading the Landscape of America (New York: Macmillan, 1975).

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