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September 22, 2008

Ornithologist receives national award from Canadian museum network

OTTAWA – Dr. Jon C. Barlow, a respected scientist who devoted his career to the study of bird evolution is the distinguished recipient this year of the Bruce Naylor Award.  This national award, presented by the Alliance of Natural History Museums of Canada (ANHMC), recognizes exceptional contributions to the study of museum-based natural history in Canada.

Dr. Barlow is most known in museum circles as the Curator of Ornithology at Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) – a position he held for 35 years until 2001.  He also led the University of Toronto’s Museum Studies Program, inspiring numerous students to pursue careers in natural sciences and museum administration. 

It has been said that through his unique combination of talents -- researcher, collector, curator, educator, mentor, editor, administrator and larger-than-life personality – he transformed the ornithology program into a flagship department at the ROM. 

His research focused on avian vocalization, specializing in the study of vireos (small to medium-sized songbirds). In fact, Dr. James Rising, an ornithologist at the University of Toronto, states:  “Jon is the world’s foremost authority on vireos.”

Over the course of his career, Barlow personally contributed over 6,000 specimens to the provincial bird collection, building it into one of the largest in the world.  “The ROM I think has one the best bird skeleton collections in the world largely because of his job,” says Rising.

Drs. Rising and Barlow first met as students at the University of Kansas. Both ended up coming to Canada for research positions. Explains Rising: Until the 1960s, most ornithologists pursuing graduate studies went to universities outside of the country such as Oxford or Cornell.  Barlow trained students at the graduate level in Ornithology at the University of Toronto making them competitive with any in the world.

“He was the right man at the right time,” says Rising.

“Jon's contributions as an ornithologist alone qualify him for recognition, but it is his leadership of the Museum Studies Program at the University of Toronto, his roles with the Ontario Museum Association and Metro Toronto Zoo, and his training of a future generation of museum workers that single him out as an exceptional award recipient,” says Dr. Bruce McGillivray, current Director of the Royal Alberta Museum, former undergraduate student of Barlow’s and long-time research collaborator.

Further, Barlow’s collaborations with 25 museums around the world led to international partnerships and an enviable list of academic contributions, notes McGillivray.  “Jon's own research and extensive involvement with American and International Ornithological Societies elevated the status of Canadian, museum-based research in the minds of North American and European academics,” he adds.

His list of honours also includes an award of merit from the Ontario Museum Association in 1993 for "Outstanding Contributions to the Museum Community" as well as one from the Metro Toronto Zoo in 1996.

“He was a dedicated scientist and dedicated museum person.  Not only was he a mentor to dozens of students and colleagues, but he inspired each of his five children,” says Margaret May, Dr. Barlow’s wife. “He was a curator who really understood and cared about the public dimension of museums. We are very proud of him. This is the icing on the cake of a fabulous career.”

The award will be accepted by Dr. Barlow’s family at a special reception of the ANHMC on September 23 in The Speaker’s Reception Room in the Centre Block of Parliament Hill, Ottawa. 

Created in 2003, the ANHMC now has 13 members from coast to coast. Its goal is to increase visibility of Canada’s natural history museums, which are responsible for preserving precious collections of millions of specimens that are the record of our natural heritage.  The network strives to build capacity in the areas of scientific research, collections development and education about the natural environment, for the greater benefit of all Canadians.

For more information and to arrange interviews, contact:
Elizabeth McCrea
Canadian Museum of Nature
(613) 566-4249; emccrea@mus-nature.ca