Forgotten Founder: Dr. Emma J. Welty

by Ann Littlewood, Volunteer Historian

William Finley and Herman Bohlman may be the best known, but they are not the only founders of Oregon Audubon Society (now Bird Alliance of Oregon). Dr. Emma J. Welty was there at the start and stayed engaged for over 20 years. She was a vice president of the John Burroughs Society, and when its members decided in 1906 to transition to Oregon Audubon Society (OAS), she helped write the new constitution and bylaws. When OAS filed articles of incorporation in 1909, she was one of the five named officers. 

As a part of our ongoing series about forgotten figures in Bird Alliance of Oregon’s history, specifically women and others who have been overlooked, we’re pleased to share Dr. Welty’s invaluable contributions. While the term LGBTQIA didn’t exist at the time, Dr. Welty might well have embraced it. She lived with her life partner, Elisabeth Watson, for over 20 years, until her death. Their relationship was no secret to the OAS board where they both served. One issue of the Warbler refers to Elisabeth Watson as Dr. Welty’s “intimate companion.”

Much of what we know about the early days of OAS is thanks to Dr. Welty. For 18 years, she wrote the annual Oregon state report to the National Audubon Society. 

She was passionate about a conservation crisis of her day—the wholesale killing of birds. Plume hunters were exterminating egrets and grebes from Oregon’s marshes to adorn women’s hats. Unregulated market hunting of ducks was similarly devastating, and raptors were routinely shot as vermin. Songbirds were killed for eating fruit in orchards. OAS tackled this in multiple ways: by agitating for laws to protect birds, by educating (and shaming) women who wore “aigrettes” (egret feathers) in their hats, and by promoting wildlife refuges.

Great Egret in breeding plumage, photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren

Dr. Welty gave many talks that incorporated these issues. In November 1907, she spoke to the Forestry Club and discussed emphasizing to farmers that raptors reduced field pests, and songbirds reduced orchard insect infestations. But she revealed that when she talked to women, it was “to plead that…the birds of bright and graceful plumage might be spared and not slaughtered in untold numbers for the adornment of women’s hats.” Her detailed descriptions of this harvest were graphic and persuasive. “It was suggested…the members of the Forestry club should supply themselves with…leaflets on this subject furnished by the Audubon society, and whenever they met a friend wearing an aigret to simply mail her a leaflet without name or comment.”

Dr. Welty did more than lecture. Her financial contributions made some of our earliest work possible. In April 1908, OAS proposed to send two people to the “lake country” of southern Oregon to identify the best locations for wildlife refuges. The timing was urgent as both President Theodore Roosevelt and Oregon governor George E. Chamberlain were sympathetic to the cause. Dr. Welty immediately donated $25 (over $800 in 2024 dollars) to this effort. Fundraising succeeded in a month, and William Finley and Herman Bohlman set out for Klamath and Malheur marshes with their camera. Their photos and recommendations heavily swayed President Roosevelt, creating a pathway for both pieces of land to become national wildlife refuges.

OAS promoted feeding birds in the winter as a contribution to their welfare that anyone could do. The winter of 1915-1916 was especially harsh, with deep snow. In January 1916, Dr. Welty sent out an appeal to “all residents in and around Portland to feed and water the birds systematically…If the people will only put their waste cabbage, apples, apple skins and cores, or whatever they have from the kitchen through a meat chopper, it will aid the birds much.” The message was picked up in Cottage Grove and as far away as Klamath Falls. She reported that 900 loaves of stale bread, 600 pounds of rolled oats, and “supplies of apples and suet” had been distributed through several agencies, “saving…many birds that otherwise would have perished.” 

No picture of Emma Welty has been found. She was born in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on March 19, 1856. She graduated from the Boston University School of Medicine in 1880, and moved to Portland in 1886, where she worked for various hospitals and also practiced medicine out of her home. She was a homeopathic doctor specializing in children’s diseases. At this time, homeopathy was a respected alternative to “regular” medicine. It was linked with social reform movements, especially women’s rights. 

Dr. Welty was also deeply engaged in women’s issues. She was on the board of physicians for the Florence Crittenton Refuge Home for women in crisis, including unwed mothers and sex workers. She is credited with a speech in 1887 to Portland’s society ladies that inspired the Portland Women’s Union to open a boarding house to protect naïve young women new to town from being forced into prostitution. 

In addition to these roles, she was also a director of the Oregon Humane Society.

Dr. Welty’s life partner, Elisabeth Watson, also served on the board of Oregon Audubon Society, as recording secretary from 1909 to 1916 and again from 1920 to 1927. 

Dr. Welty passed away at the age of 71. She left her estate to those closest to her, including Elisabeth. She also left a significant bequest to OAS, about $60,000 in 2024 dollars, that helped with purchasing and fencing the wildlife sanctuary on Cornell Road—our headquarters for nearly 100 years.

In the 1927 President’s Report, Willard A. Eliot wrote, “It is with regret that I have to report the passing away of our corresponding secretary, Dr. Emma J. Welty. Dr. Welty was an officer of the society for nearly twenty years and during that time gave unstintedly of her time and money to the cause of wild life conservation. Her presence and council will be keenly missed by the members of the society.”

Dr. Emma J. Welty is buried in Portland at Riverview Cemetery. At a ceremony in November 1927, OAS members planted a tree at her grave. William Finley and others spoke in appreciation of her work for the society. A large old maple tree stands there still.