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Centenarian moved from healing people to saving forests

Internist turned conservationist Edgar Wayburn, FACP, led efforts to save 100 million acres of wilderness

From the December ACP Observer, copyright 2006 by the American College of Physicians.

By Stacey Butterfield

Almost 70 years ago, Edgar Wayburn, FACP, looked out over the San Francisco Bay and found his calling. Dr. Wayburn was already a practicing physician, but the sight of development encroaching on California's wilderness inspired him to begin a second career as a conservationist.

For the next seven decades, Dr. Wayburn devoted his free time to exploring the wilderness of California and Alaska, developing plans to conserve those wilds, and pushing the plans through Congress with persistent lobbying. In total, Dr. Wayburn is responsible for the conservation of more than 100 million acres of American wilderness. As former President Bill Clinton said when awarding the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Dr. Wayburn, "He has saved more of our wilderness than any person alive."


Edgar Wayburn, FACP enjoys a hike through the woods in 2004. He remains active in Alaskan conservation



As a medical student, Dr. Wayburn had dreamed of saving the world through medical research. In practice, though, he found most of his time was taken up helping individual patients. Conservation offered the chance to make an impact on the global scale he had dreamed about while in school.

"Instead of working with single human beings, I would come to study watersheds and systems, exploring how such natural systems could remain healthy when confronted with human development," Dr. Wayburn wrote in is his memoir, Your Land and Mine: Evolution of a Conservationist.

Now age 100, Dr. Wayburn no longer hikes mountaintops or practices medicine, but he still remembers what inspired him to become one of the country's first and foremost conservation advocates.

After moving to California following his graduation from Harvard Medical School in 1933, he found untouched wilderness surrounding San Francisco Bay in every direction.

"I encountered scenery that I had never seen before," he said. But when he returned from several years in Europe during World War II, he saw that "things had changed considerably. Only in the North Bay, across the Golden Gate Bridge, was there unfettered countryside as there had been before the war. I thought I had to do something about it."

To preserve the remaining undeveloped area, Dr. Wayburn began lobbying for the creation of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. He joined the Sierra Club, which at the time was a small, invitation-only group mainly focused on organizing hiking trips. After successful campaigns to preserve the wilderness around San Francisco (the city now has more national parkland than any other urban area in the country), Dr. Wayburn and the Sierra Club expanded their vision, moving on to projects like the creation of Redwoods National Park near California's northern border in 1968.

Dr. Wayburn was president of the Sierra Club during the 1960s and served on the organization's board of directors between 1957 and 1993. The group grew enormously during that period, changing from a local outdoorsman's club to a national organization with a powerful political presence. At the same time, Dr. Wayburn worked in private practice and held a teaching position first at Stanford University and then at the University of California Medical School. During his career, he also ran an outpatient clinic, worked part time as an epidemiologist, dabbled in medical research and was active in medical organizations.

Combining work, volunteer activities and family was a challenge for the father of four. Lobbying activities frequently took Dr. Wayburn to Washington, D.C. and he would catch the red-eye so as to miss as little time away from work as possible.

"I look back and wonder how I had the energy to do both. That I was a workaholic cannot be denied," he wrote in his memoir.

Later in his career, Dr. Wayburn transferred some of his medical practice to younger colleagues in order to free up time for his wide-ranging conservation efforts.

When asked about advice for physicians looking to follow his path, his answer is simple: "You do what you feel you have to do. If that involves both [volunteer work and medical practice], you do both."

Today, Dr. Wayburn remains active in Alaskan conservation projects. He first became interested in the state during a vacation in 1967 with his wife, Peggy, who was also a prominent conservationist until her death in 2002. "We were overwhelmed by what we saw in Alaska and we resolved that we had to see that it remained as it was," he said.

Dr. and Mrs. Wayburn made many more trips to the 49th state, for both recreation and activism. In 1980, their vision for Alaska took a major step forward with the passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which created 10 new national parks and effectively doubled the size of the country's national park system.

Never one to rest on his laurels, Dr. Wayburn is currently chair of the Sierra Club's Alaska Task Force.

"In protecting wild lands we seek not mere survival," Dr. Wayburn wrote in his memoirs, "but our hope, our solace, our inspiration, and our joy."

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