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George Perkins Marsh was a lawyer, politician, diplomat, businessman, and farmer who studied a wide variety of subjects. Among his writings in favor of conservationism, his foremost influential book was Man and Nature (1864), which remains in print to this day. He was born in Woodstock, Vermont, on March 15, 1801, and died in Vallombrosa, Italy, on July 23, 1882. In 1820, he graduated from Dartmouth College, New Hampshire.
Marsh started his political career in Vermont, and from 1843 to 1849 he served as a Whig representative in the U.S. Congress. President Zachary Taylor appointed him minister resident in Turkey in 1849, where he served until 1853. He went to Greece temporarily as special minister in 1852. Later, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Marsh envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary to Italy in 1861, a position that he held until his death.
From 1838 to 1862 he wrote on English and Scandinavian languages, and his work Lectures on the English Language (1859) was influential and contributed to the development of the linguistic study of English. His The Origin and History of the English Language (1862) offered a more historical approach.
Marsh was a pioneer in conservation studies and the movement that changed the perception of the relationship between man and environment. On September 30, 1847, he delivered a speech on agricultural conditions in New England to the Agricultural Society of Rutland County, Vermont. It draws on his early life interest in natural history, his farming activity, and his concern for the effects of deforestation. The American conservation movement was in its infancy. Henry David Thoreau’s Walden was published in 1854. In 1857 Marsh wrote “Report on the Artificial Propagation of Fish,” addressed to the Legislature of Vermont, in which he highlights the role of forests, river productivity, population restoration, and fish breeding.
In 1864 Marsh published Man and Nature or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action, the seminal work he revised in 1874 and published with the title The Earth as Modified by Human Action: Man and Nature. He brought a fresh, modern perspective to understanding the human capacity to be an agent of environmental change, and identified various environmental problems-deforestation, erosion, and pollution. Marsh called for sustainable resource management and anticipated the paradigm of the environment as a system. Marsh supported the establishment of the Smithsonian Institution by serving on the organizing committee and making donations of species obtained in his travels. His property eventually became part of Vermont’s MarshBillings-Rockefeller National Historical Park.
- Jane Curtis, Will Curtis, and Frank Lieberman, The World of George Perkins Marsh, America’s First Conservationist and Environmentalist: An Illustrated Biography (Countryman Press, 1982);
- David Lowenthal, George Perkins Marsh, Versatile Vermonter (Columbia University Press, 1958);
- David Lowenthal, George Perkins Marsh: Prophet of Conservation (University of Washington Press, 2000);
- Stephen C. Trombulak, , So Great a Vision: The Conservation Writings of George Perkins Marsh (University Press of New England, 2001).