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Chicago Academy of Sciences: Dr. William J. Beecher

August 2, 2013

Dr. William J. Beecher

Since November I have been hand inspecting the Chicago Academy of Sciences collection, consisting of over 1300 film materials, and this past month have officially made it halfway though this interesting collection. Dr. William J. Beecher was the director for the Chicago Academy of Sciences from 1958 to 1983. Between those years, Beecher acted as the educational collaborator for commercial education films, including ones for Coronet Films, WMAQ-TV (NBC Chicago), as well as producing a series for the Academy entitled “This Is Your World,” which covered topics such as the Indiana Dunes, snake hunting, birds, and pond ecology. His films are now part of the moving picture collection of the Chicago Academy of Sciences (the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum).

Outside of these larger films for the Academy, it was clear that Dr. Beecher and his camera were inseparable– he left behind over one thousand 100′ reels of 16mm film, creating a collection that give an intimate look into Beecher’s life and passions.

Beecher Birds1 E1375460833233 Beecher 2 Birds

Birdwatching was Dr. Beecher’s first love. Many of the films feature the birds of Chicagoland, whether it was in whitethroats in Lincoln Park, tanagers in Riis Park, or phalaropes in Calumet. The sheer amount of birdwatching footage shows the patience and dedication Beecher had for what was more than a hobby, but a lifestyle.




Białowieża Forest in Belarus and Poland

Japancastle E13754612372091

Castle in Japan

Dr. Beecher and his companions took trips all over the world, documenting their travels constantly with his camera. He shot sunsets in Kenya, parrots in Guadalcanal, Kauri trees in New Zealand, storks in India and Sherpas in Nepal. He captured the natural diversity of the United States, filming blooming cactus flowers in Arizona, hiking in the Smoky Mountains, vultures in Big Bend, and sequoia in California.


one of Dr. Beecher’s many photographic tests

In addition to being a filmmaker, director, and ornithologist, Dr. Beecher was also an inventor. He shot many tests on a variety of zoom lenses, and created the Beecher Mirage binoculars, which are still in production today.

Florida Keys



The most diverse filmmaker of the Chicago Academy of Sciences collection, Dr. William J. Beecher produced an immense catalog of films that not only give an intimate insight to nature, but encapsulate Dr. Beecher’s lasting legacy.


bonus read: a pupil of Beecher’s recalls the impact the doctor made on his life.

Missed last time’s post about Sidney Downey? Read it here.


— Lauren Alberque


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