George Perkins Marsh
-- First American Ambassador to Italy, First Ecologist:
A cemetery existed in the area between Rome's Porta S. Paolo and Mt. Testaccio in ancient times -- Rome's only remaining pyramid, that of Cestius is there ( The pyramid remained, but by the end of the 18th century the area around it was mostly farmland. There was still a small cemetery for "strangers", which essentially meant non-Catholics rather than foreigners. In 1784 there appeared the first documentary mention of "Cimitero die protestanti" -- the "protestant cemetery." Ninety-eight years later, a distinguished American, George Perkins Marsh, was interred there after living in Italy for 21 years.

Marsh's life story is so sweeping that no fiction writer would dare to propose it. He was born in Woodstock Vermont in 1801 into a political family: his father was in the still very new US Congress. By the time he was five (yes, five years old!) he was already studying Latin and Greek. He read so much that, when he was seven, doctors diagnosed eye fatigue, and he wasn't allowed to read for four years -- others read to him. At 19 he graduated Summa cum Laude from Dartmouth and began to teach. Not liking that, he studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1825 and soon was a prominent lawyer. After the tragic death of his first wife and eldest son in an epidemic in 1833, he immersed himself in Icelandic and Scandinavian languages, beginning a lifelong interest in philology and linguistics -- in fact, he is credited with having invented "scientific" linguistics and eventually spoke 28 languages. He was a successful businessman and first a local, then a state politician, and finally entered the national Congress (Whig) in 1844. While he was in Congress he opposed slavery and the Mexican War, helped to found the Smithsonian Institution. Eventualy, he was also one of the founders of the Republican Party.

In 1849 he began his diplomatic career when President Taylor sent him as "Minister" (what we now call "Ambassador") to Turkey -- he, of course, was fluent in Turkish. He was also in charge of helping resettle refugees of the 1848 revolutions in Europe. In 1852 he went on a special mission to Athens (spoke Greek, of course) and then collected specimens for the Smithsonian in Egypt and Palestine (using his Arabic) and information for his government.

Marsh was recalled -- a nice way to say fired -- in 1854. He was out of favor in Washington because of his own evolving political philosophy, and he spent the next six years in business and local politics in Vermont. When Lincoln was elected, he was called back into diplomatic service and was appointed to be the first "Minister" to the new Kingdom of Italy. But neither that nor any of what is recounted above is what he really was and is famous for.

Because of a book which he wrote in his first two years in Italy (not in Rome -- that was still part of the Papal States) he is considered to be the father of the ecology movements (the plural form is there on purpose -- more later) and "conservation". Drawing on years of observation and study in the United States and his more recent experience in the Mediterranean basin, he published in 1864 the book that was to be the foundation of the several schools of ecological thought.

Marsh's Man and nature; or, Physical geography as modified by human action was the most influential book of it's day, and it still exerts a mighty influence today. (Well, maybe the second most -- Darwin's Origin of Species was published in 1859.) Prior to Marsh's book, "natural scientists", i.e., people who studied nature, uniformly had written that the actions of man had a positive effect on the world -- man used his intellect to improve things. Marsh's revolutionary thesis was that, even though it was possible for human activity to improve on nature, it was obvious that, in most cases, the presence of humanity mostly had serious negative effects. Marsh said that the downward trend could be and must be reversed. He argued eloquently for a change in human use of the environment, and it was his text that Thoreau, Miur, Theodore Roosevelt, and all who followed used in their own arguments for conservation and ecological wisdom. (Marsh's text and many other "classics" on conservation and ecology are available from the US Library of Congress at

Why "ecology movements"? Already in his own lifetime, and still today, Marsh's writings and speeches were and are used selectively in "eco-wars" among his presumptive heirs. Marsh invented much of the terminology, and folks with their own ideological agendas use it mercilessly. To drastically simplify the complex issues involved, we need only to look at the two major contending camps, both of which claim Marsh as their progenitor, and both of which claim, therefore, to be "politically correct". One ecology camp claims that Marsh called for "rational use" of natural resources. The camp that says he wanted to "preserve" all natural resources opposes them.

It's an artificial split, of course, because, while Marsh did call for preservation as a first choice, he also recognized that preservation of all natural resources was just not going to happen: so any use should be rational. Despite the clarity of Marsh's message, the ecology camps, and camps within camps, constantly argue about what Marsh really meant. And these disputes clearly demonstrate the desire for all participants to tie their baggage wagons to Marsh, the man that all the factions recognize as first and most important locomotive of the movement. Marsh also went the next step, calling for governments to take the necessary steps to repair damage already done, and that is something that often is also forgotten by today's ecological ideologues -- Marsh's supposed heirs, remember -- who seem to have a vast mistrust of governments.

Next time you walk past that big marble list of names in the lobby of the Rome American Embassy, glance up at the first name on the list, and give Ambassador George Perkins Marsh, a "Big Government " ecologist, a quick mental salute.

More Internet links:

In a world that is, at last, aware of ecological problems, one can find numerous books on Marsh. One very well received recent bio and study of his works is David Lowenthal's George Perkins Marsh: Prophet of Conservation listed by at Don't let the publisher, Weyerhaeuser, a huge tree-cutting conglomerate, put you off.

Marsh's Man and Nature, as noted above, is linked at:, which is a listing of authors in the US Library of Congress "Evolution of the Conservation Movement " site. There are many other interesting links, including one to a Marsh speech delivered in 1847, which was a precursor to the book.

The George Perkins Marsh online research center:

Dromedaries in Texas -- Marsh's proposal implemented by Jefferson Davis:

The Marsh US National Historic Park:

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