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Obituaries » William J.L. Sladen

Dr. William “Bill” J. L. Sladen, a scientist and conservationist known worldwide for long-term behavioral studies of Arctic and Antarctic birds, particularly Adelie penguins and North American native swans, died Monday, May 29, 2017, at his Warrenton home. He was 96.

Dr. Sladen’s 50 years in waterfowl research included work in Alaska, Western Europe (including Lapland and Iceland) and Wrangel Island, Siberia. He pioneered techniques in capture, circumpolar marking and radio-telemetry. In the 1970s, he defined the 8,000-mile roundtrip migration route of the Tundra Swan as a part of a team advising the Air Force and FAA on bird hazards to aircraft. A strong advocate of long-term research, he sometimes commuted between sites of his different ongoing projects in both the Arctic and Antarctic. He filmed Adelie penguins extensively, both for science and to reach a wider public. His film, “Penguin City,” first aired by CBS in 1971 and narrated by Charles Kuralt, documented the day-to-day lives of Adelie penguins for a popular audience.

Dr. Sladen moved to Fauquier County in 1990, after retiring from a teaching career at Johns Hopkins University. He founded the research, education and conservation organization Environmental Studies on the Piedmont, a 914-acre field station, just north of Warrenton. Until his retirement as its director, it was his base for continued studies of migratory patterns of trumpeter swans and attempts to restore those birds, destroyed by hunters in the last century, to their traditional East Coast wintering grounds.

In the 1980s, Sladen collaborated with Canadian Bill Lishman in an experiment to train Canada geese to fly behind ultralight aircraft, hoping the technique might be used to teach safer migration routes to Trumpeter swans and other endangered waterfowl. In 1993, the first successful experiment, a flight of 18 Canada geese, imprinted on ultralight aircraft left Canada behind two ultralights, landing four days later at the Airlie Conference Center. The experiment led to the Hollywood film, “Fly Away Home.”

Born in England and trained in medicine, Dr. Sladen first traveled to Antarctica in 1948 as medical officer and biologist for a small team of researchers at Hope Bay, a remote blizzard-swept base on the Antarctic Peninsula operated by Britain’s Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey. He sledged with dogs between study areas and was once spent 17 days alone there, living in a tent, after a fire destroyed the base hut, killing his companions.

“Bill Sladen was a true scientist-adventurer, one foot in the heroic age of Antarctic exploration and the other in the newly fledging world of modern ecology,” said one of his former students.

After coming to the U.S. in 1956, Dr. Sladen taught comparative behavior and ecology to graduate students at Johns Hopkins’ University (now Bloomberg) School of Public Health. He continued long-term Antarctic ornithological research, largely funded by the National Science Foundation, mostly in company with his students. He worked extensively with the U.S. Antarctic Research program as part of the International Geophysical Year (Operation Deepfreeze). A bacteriologist by training, he gained expertise in diseases of wild birds and other wildlife and was widely consulted by zoos. In 1964 he was the first to discover DDT residues in Antarctic penguins and seals thus helping to demonstrate the global reach of this long-lasting pesticide.

In the 1980s, as the Cold War ended, Dr. Sladen played key roles in promoting US/USSR cooperation in migratory bird studies, particularly snow geese. He personally escorted a pair of trumpeter swans to Russia as a gift from the U.S. government.

Conservation was a lifelong dedication. He was instrumental in preservation of key natural areas in Maryland and a founding director of The Wildfowl Trust of North America at Grasonville, Md. For many years he waged a relentless campaign to stop the legal hunting of swans in Virginia.

Dr. Sladen held two medical degrees, MB, BS and MD (London), and a DPhil (PhD) in zoology (Oxford). He has published more 120 scientific papers. He was the founding chair of the Baltimore Zoological Society (now Zoological Society of Maryland); a founder of the Wildfowl Trust of North America in Grasonville, Md.; a founding member and president the Antarctican Society.

His awards included Member of the British Empire (MBE) from King George VI, the Polar Medal from Queen Elizabeth II, and the 1991 Explorers Medal (Explorers Club, N.Y.). Two mountains in Antarctica are named after him. Deeply devoted throughout his life to botany, he made collections for the British Museum and Smithsonian from Macedonia, Siberia, Alaska, Falkland Islands and Antarctica.

Survivors include his wife, Jocelyn Sladen of Warrenton; two children, Hugh Sladen of Glen Rock, Pa., and Kate Adelie Sladen Bush of Boulder, Colo.; two grandchildren, and a former wife, Brenda Macpherson Sladen of Glen Rock, Pa.

A memorial service will take place at a later date.
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Sally Murray · June 1, 2017 at 9:44 am
This brilliant scientist's pursuit of knowledge advanced wildlife protection and preservation on several continents. I was privileged to witness the landing of Canada geese behind an ultralight aircraft at Airlie. One of my favorite memories of Dr. Sladen occurred at a dinner meeting at Airlie. The person sitting beside me asked what the billiken I was wearng was made of. I said, "oosik, a bone of a prehistoric walrus." From the other end of the table, where I was surprised Dr Sladen could hear, he boomed a more specific answer and then smiled at my embarrassment. As often was the case around Dr. Sladen, the entire table learned something. He was a fascinating man. Sally Murray
BJ · May 30, 2017 at 8:38 pm
Dr. Sladen was an incredible human being. One of a kind, and not many left in this world like him. Thank you for all your work and perseverance.
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