Don Messersmith


Originally written by student Chameka Day; revised and corrected by Karen Powers and Don Messersmith

Radford University’s Biology Department has a remarkable Natural History Collection including taxidermied animals, skeletal specimens, and liquid-preserved whole organisms. Some specimens date back to the 1880’s, even before Radford College was in existence. One of the collectors and salvagers we can thank for a plethora of teaching and research specimens is Dr. Donald Messersmith. He was a faculty member in the Biology Department from 1958-1963, and has a special interest in ornithology (the study of birds). Although his time here was relatively short, his impact on our natural history collection was substantial.

Dr. Messersmith’s love for birds and bird-watching began at the age of 13 during a Boy Scout camp.  The staff naturalist from his summer camp invited any boys interested to go on a bird walk; strangely, he was the only one that participated. However, since that day in the 1940s (January 1, 1946, to be exact!), he began to keep a log of all birds he saw—birders today call it a Life List. Dr. Messersmith’s journal contained a list of each bird species he saw. This journal continued for over two decades and well into his years in college.  Dr. M recalls being a student at the University of Toledo (Toledo, Ohio), studying biology (with an education concentration) – he would strategically plan his classes for 8AM and 1PM to give him several morning hours to watch birds in the woods behind the campus!

After receiving his Master’s at the University of Michigan, Dr. Messersmith was drafted into the army and served at Walter Reed Army Medical Center (Washington, D.C.). After his discharge, he served a year as a middle school science teacher. At the time, the National Science Foundation was offering grants to teachers for continuing education.  Dr. Messersmith took advantage of this opportunity and took a course in Entomology (study of insects) at the University of Maryland. This inspired him to return to school full-time and pursue his Ph.D. in entomology at Virginia Polytechnic Institute (aka Virginia Tech).

In 1958, Dr. Messersmith moved his young family to Radford and began his career at then-Radford College, teaching courses in General Biology and Ornithology. Based on his wide range of experiences and knowledge of natural history, he took students on field trips to watch birds. He founded the New River Valley Bird club – an organization still in existence today!

One of the most important events (from the point of improving the natural history collection) that Dr. Messersmith was involved in was the acquisition of a carload (yes, literally, a carload!) of mounted bird specimens from the University of Virginia (UVA). UVA was discarding a substantial amount of its collection as it renovated Brooks Hall. So, Dr. Messersmith and his student, Ruth Androvich (now Beck), jumped in his station wagon and headed up to Charlottesville! He still chuckles at the memories of people on the road looking into the car full of stuffed birds. (Another student project looked into the acquisition and value of these taxidermied birds, check out the neat story HERE).                                                                      

Besides these valuable birds (some more than a century old!), Dr. Messersmith had contributed tremendously to our natural history collection. While we are currently in the beginning stages of cataloging and digitizing our insect collection, we’ve already found over 50 specimens from Dr. Messersmith. The collections, so far, span from 1957-1968, and include moths and butterflies, flies, beetles, wasps, and more.

After he retired from the University of Maryland in 1989, he continued to teach adult courses in Orthnithology in the Washington D.C metropolitan area. And he is still teaching! Always the teacher, Dr. Messersmith visited Radford’s campus in 2009, and gave two guest lectures – one to a conservation biology course (speaking about his international travels and birding trips), and one to The Wildlife Society, telling stories about life in the Biology Department back in the 1950s and 1960s.

During a 2013 interview with Dr. Messersmith, he stated that out of all the awards and national honors he has received in his career, his most rewarding times were when he was teaching. And we at Radford College/Radford University agree – we are grateful for his contributions.