Written by: Dr. John Greene, '69

A Sage on Monteagle Ridge

A Reflection on the Life and Career of Dr. Thomas H. Morton

The Buffalo environs and the Niagara Frontier are famous (some would say infamous) for their climate. However, with the arrival of September, there is no better place on God’s green earth than Western New York. The days are filled with the residual warmth of the summer, the oppressive humidity has dissipated, the skies are high and azure blue and, if you were to pay attention to the waters of the Niagara River and Lake Ontario, you would be treated to a palette of colors ranging from Caribbean blue to an emerald green. So when the Class of ’69 arrived on campus to begin its sophomore year in the fall of 1966, students were greeted with the best weather that WNY had to offer. The biology and natural science majors would also be introduced to the biological sciences and to Dr. Thomas Morton for the first time. It was a season of great expectations.

Thomas Harlow Morton, a Massachusetts Yankee, was born in Plymouth, Mass., overlooking Plymouth Bay just north of Cape Cod on April 20, 1906. He graduated from Plymouth High School and, as an undergraduate, attended the University of Vermont, where he developed a keen interest in zoology and a dream to attend medical school. When he graduated from college in 1929, Herbert Hoover was president and the United States was on the cusp of a great depression — life was about to change for millions of people. A highly motivated and accomplished student, Morton’s academic performance merited his acceptance to the University of Vermont School of Medicine. However, to pursue his degree, he needed to seek employment to help finance his medical school education. Fortuitously, a friend and former Niagara University student informed him of the availability of a teaching position at Niagara. Morton accepted the position and left for Western New York later that year. In the interim, the dean promised to reserve his place in medical school. The plan was to earn and save enough money to return to UVM and pursue his medical degree. The fates, as is their wont, would dictate a different course — Thomas Morton would never return to Vermont, nor would he ever receive his doctor of medicine.

Professor and Mentor

General biology convened for the first time, that September of 1966, on a Monday morning in the amphitheater at the DePaul Hall of Science. Villee’s Biology was the textbook du jour. As academic decorum and university regulations mandated, all the men in the class were required to wear sport coats and ties, while the woman wore dresses. To be fair, the faculty followed the same dress code, though in the science department, sport coats were often substituted with lab coats that were infinitely more practical and resistant to formaldehyde and other organic and inorganic compounds.

Dr. Morton, a tall, distinguished, and stately gentleman, entered the amphitheater punctually wearing a seersucker jacket. Professorial in appearance from head to toe, endowed with a shock of silver-gray hair and sporting dark horn-rimmed glasses, he was the quintessential college professor. If Norman Rockwell ever felt compelled to paint a college professor, he could have chosen Thomas H. Morton as his living model.

Though we commenced that fall semester in general biology, many of us would encounter Dr. Morton again in our junior and senior years, both in histology and embryology, respectively. He also led a course in scientific photography that was reserved for graduate students. Soft-spoken and thoughtful, Dr. Morton had an air of both dignity and serenity about him. His lectures were finally honed and delivered with scholarly precision — undoubtedly from years of experience, but also due to his expertise and deep insight and understanding of the academic areas that he taught.

Arriving on campus for the first time in the fall of 1929, Dr. Morton was assigned to the math and chemistry departments, eventually transferring into the biology department in 1934 where he would spend the remainder of his career. He received his master’s degree in 1936, followed by his Ph.D. in 1938, both earned at Niagara. By 1943, he had achieved the title of professor and, in 1947, he assumed the chairmanship of the biology department, a position that he would retain through 1974. After stepping down from the chairmanship, he continued to serve the department, on a part-time basis, for the next 17 years, instructing in both histology and vertebrate embryology as well as continuing his photography class. Most, if not all, of the hundreds of slides and photomicrographs employed in those classes and used by generations of students were personally handcrafted by Dr. Morton. When he eventually retired in 1991, after 62 years of service to the university, no one had a longer academic tenure.

In addition to his teaching responsibilities, he was also active in the community and in university governance. He served on the board of directors for the Multiple Sclerosis Association of Western New York, and was a member of The Health Association of Western New York, as well as the New York Academy of Sciences. In addition, he was a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences and a member of the advisory board to the Niagara University Board of Trustees.

A Life in Focus

As one of his first official acts that fall semester, Dr. Morton set up his camera and tripod and took an official portrait of his 1966 biology class, presumably for posterity’s sake. Ironically, most of the members of that class were born the year he became chair of the biology department back in 1947. He had to wait 19 years for us and here we were. If he was impressed with that fact, he never let on.

Gardening and photography were avocations for Dr. Morton, but it was photography that provided him with a second career. He was a pioneer in scientific photography, published in photographic journals, and well-known in the scientific community for his work.

His photographic interests, however, extended beyond the scientific and the classroom. He was equally famous for his photography of Niagara Falls and the surrounding area. The Maid of the Mist concession stands and other local tourist attractions were full of his postcards and Kodachromes, and it is estimated that hundreds of thousands of his photos were sold through these venues. One of his photographs of Niagara Falls was used by the U.S. Department of Commerce as the centerpiece of its trade show in Paris in 1962.

Perhaps his most interesting photographic subject was that of a movie star by the name of Norma Jean Baker, also known as Marilyn Monroe. In 1952, Twentieth Century Fox and director Henry Hathaway came to Niagara Falls along with Joseph Cotten and Jean Peters to film the movie Niagara. Monroe received top billing for the film that subsequently jettisoned her into superstar status. She had just turned 26 and this would be film number 19 in her filmography.

No two individuals could possibly be more opposite, but on that June day in 1952 their lives briefly intersected. Employed by the Maid of the Mist Corp. during the summer, Dr. Morton had access to and was very facile in handling the company’s launch boat, a talent that he acquired while working on Lake Champlain steamers as a college student. So when the opportunity presented itself, and with camera at his side, Dr. Morton navigated the launch boat from the American side of the Falls to the Canadian side. With some trepidation he introduced himself to Monroe, who graciously accepted his request to have her photograph taken. A series of pictures was created, including the iconic “Marilyn on the Rocks” with the American Falls in the background.

That fall, the pH Club (which Dr. Morton also moderated) assembled for its November meeting. The topic was photography, and there was a record turnout. At the conclusion of the meeting, Dr. Morton showed some of his personal slides, including those of Marilyn Monroe — which might explain the robust attendance. The minutes that were recorded indicated that Dr. Morton was “thrilled with the attendance,” particularly because he had no plan for taking roll call. The final entry noted that the slides were the highlight of the evening and “it showed Dr. Morton’s fine ability to photograph other subjects besides scenery and chick embryo cross sections.”

Extraordinary People Leave Unforgettable Legacies

Today, when you walk into DePaul Hall, there are three prominently displayed oil portraits of former faculty members from the biology department. In the center is a true-to-life likeness of Dr. Thomas H.Morton (no, it was not painted by Norman Rockwell). The other two are of Dr. Lawrence Kiely and Dr. John J. Reedy.

In the basement of DePaul lies an old Kodak carousel containing Kodachromes entitled “Dr. Morton’s Last Lecture.” As might be expected, most of the slides relate to his photography. Not surprisingly, there is only a single photo of himself as a young adolescent in his boy scout uniform.

Dr. Morton died quietly at home on Jan. 1, 1993, at the age of 86. He was predeceased by his wife, Theresa, and daughter, Anne. He was survived by two grandsons.

Though he never achieved his ambition of becoming a doctor, he lent his voice for all those many decades to the teaching profession, where he motivated, instructed, and inspired thousands of students and, in turn, directly and indirectly touched tens of thousands of lives.

During his lifetime, the university recognized his prodigious teaching career and the valuable contribution that he made to the academic community and humanity. In 1979, he received an honorary Doctor of Science degree from Niagara. Eight years later, he was awarded the Niagara University Medal of Honor, presented by then-university president the Rev. Donald J. Harrington, C.M. The citation read: “We are honoring a man whose courageous devotion to his family, whose scholarship and expertise in his profession, whose thoughtful loyalty to his university, whose enduring dedication to his students, past and present demand a response. Here is not only the witness of years and events and accomplishments, but the testimony of generations of the inspired, the admiring, the grateful.”


Acknowledgements: Thanks to Dr. Robert S. Greene, ’75,’77, current chairman of the biology department, for taking time from his busy schedule to share memories and archival material. To Dr. Melvin Dyster, Class of 1948, who likewise was generous in sharing personal stories and recollections of Dr. Morton. To James V. Glynn, CEO of the Maid of the Mist, whom I interrupted during his vacation, for providing details about the filming of Niagara and the Marilyn Monroe photographs. To the Niagara Falls Public Library for allowing me access to their local history department and postcard collection. To Linus and Sandra Ormsby and Don Glynn, who provided resource and reference material. And, finally, thanks to Dr. Thomas H. Morton, who illuminated the way.