Library Pathfinder Series

Finding May T. Watts

Content Detail

The collections of the Sterling Morton Library feature many objects created by women, from the exquisite gouache eighteenth-century paintings by German artist Barbara Regina Dietzsch to the scientific papers of The Morton Arboretum’s former tree breeder, Sue Wiegrefe. But one of the library’s most extensive and varied collections is the collection of May Theilgaard Watts materials. At the Arboretum, Watts is known for establishing the education program, but she was also a noted naturalist, author, artist, poet, and environmental activist who left a legacy that extends beyond the Arboretum.

May Petrea Theilgaard was born May 1, 1893, to Danish immigrants in Chicago. Her father, a trained landscape gardener, encouraged her interest in plants. After teaching public school for a while, she earned a degree in botany and ecology from the University of Chicago and was later a student at the Art Institute of Chicago. She married Raymond Watts in 1924 and moved to Ravinia a few years later where she became involved with a group, led by landscape architect Jens Jensen, called Friends of Our Native Landscape, which worked to preserve the natural landscape of the Midwest. Watts began speaking at garden clubs and teaching part-time at The Morton Arboretum until 1942 when she joined the staff full-time as the Arboretum’s naturalist. In this role, Watts developed the Arboretum’s education program, offering courses in botany, ecology, geology, gardening, art, nature literature, and creative writing. In addition to her work at the Arboretum, she also wrote poems, articles, and books, including her popular work Reading the Landscape (1957) and a regular column in the Chicago Tribune called “Nature Afoot.” After suffering a stroke in 1961, Watts retired from the Arboretum but continued to work as an advocate for natural preservation, leading the efforts to establish the Illinois Prairie Path, a network of trails converted from abandoned railways that now spans approximately 61 miles across northeastern Illinois. 

May T. Watts was a woman of many talents, which is reflected in the library’s collection of her materials. The collection features:

  • Watts’ botanical and educational artwork
  • Awards, honors, and dedications, including information on the May Watts Society and May T. Watts Reading Garden
  • Biographical information, including newspaper clippings and other articles about her and her work
  • Correspondence, including children’s letters to her and correspondence with Jens Jensen
  • Photographs of Watts and photographs taken by her
  • Information on the Illinois Prairie Path
  • Examples of her teaching materials
  • Early drafts and notes of her publications like Reading the Landscape, as well as poems, essays, guides, and maps

The impact of May T. Watts is evident in The Morton Arboretum’s robust education program, the extensive Illinois Prairie Path, her numerous publications, as well as the memories of her family, students, and colleagues. Several landmarks have been named in her honor including parks in Highland Park and Naperville, a Naperville elementary school, and the May T. Watts Reading Garden, adjacent to the Sterling Morton Library. To learn more about this influential woman, view digitized materials on the library’s online repository, ACORN, or to access more of the collection, please contact the library at 630-719-2429 or to set up an appointment.

“Explore an Attitude of Gratitude for May Watts Park.” Positively Naperville. November 7, 2022. Accessed 2023-02-21.  

Individual: Watts, May Theilgaard. The Morton Arboretum. Accessed 2023-02-21.

May T. Watts Park. Park District of Highland Park. Accessed 2023-02-21.  

Rotenberk, Lori. “Remembering May Watts” Chicago Wilderness Magazine. Vol. 11, No. 2 Winter 1999. Accessed 2023-02-21

On ACORN, you can find a gallery of May Theilgaard Watts’ artwork featuring leaf prints, tree portraits, and educational illustrations. You can also view this short video celebrating May T. Watts and see a comprehensive list of the Collection of May Theilgaard Watts Materials. Please contact the library at 630-719-2429 or to view the materials in person.

Attend the Women and the Environment Speaker Series throughout March 2023, which includes a program about the Legacy of May Watts.

Register for a course in The Morton Arboretum’s education program, which May T. Watts developed. The Morton Arboretum offers learning opportunities for all ages on a variety of topics.

Visit the May T. Watts Reading Garden from April to October. This peaceful, intimate garden, which May T. Watts helped design, is accessible from the Sterling Morton Library. When the library is closed, you can reach the garden through a gate on the north side.