Born in Kansas in 1884, Dixon spent his first years near Galena, Cherokee County, Kansas.1 In 1888, the Dixon family relocated
to California. With his parents Benjamin and Eva, siblings Charles T. (b. 1876), James B. (b. 1886) and Pearl (b. 1890), Dixon
spent his youth in Escondido, just north of San Diego.2 After graduating from Escondido High School, Dixon attended Throop
Polytechnic Institute (now the California Institute of Technology, or Caltech) in Pasadena, where he began his training in
biological fieldwork. At Throop, Dixon took a biology course with a young instructor named Joseph Grinnell, forming a mentorship
and professional association that would last many years.3
While still a student at Throop, Dixon was recommended by Frank Stephens, an expert specimen collector who Dixon knew from
an ornithological club, to be a bird collector for Annie Montague Alexander’s expedition to Alaska in 1907.4 During this trip,
Dixon collected numerous bird and mammal specimens and took a good deal of field notes pertaining to local bird species.5
Upon the expedition’s return, Alexander established and financed the University of California’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology
(MVZ) at Berkeley, and named Grinnell as the founding director in 1908. Dixon joined Grinnell at MVZ soon-after and began
his graduate studies there.
In 1913, Dixon participated in another expedition to the Arctic waters of Siberia and Alaska, this time organized by a group
of Harvard graduates including sponsor John E. Thayer, a wealthy amateur ornithologist. The trip was in the interests of the
Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard, and with the cooperation from MVZ, Dixon was able to join Harvard ornithologist
Winthrop Sprague Brooks in the observation and collection of zoological specimens. The expedition was planned to last from
April to September 1913 only, but the team’s ship became locked in ice in early September, seven miles off the coast of Alaska’s
Humphrey Point due to the seas not thawing over the summer. The team made a base camp and survived on hair seals, polar bear,
and many birds that may have otherwise been kept as specimens.6 Despite the conditions, Dixon was able to go on extensive
collecting trips, gathering approximately 1,000 specimens of bird and mammal with an accompanying 200 pages of field notes.
After nearly one year, the expedition got navigating again on July 27, 1914, and Dixon arrived back to California in mid-October,
over a year late for his own wedding.7
Starting in 1914, Dixon contributed to Grinnell’s formal field work in Yosemite, which aimed to conduct a complete survey
of the natural history of vertebrates in the region. All eight members of the team participated in the exploration, at one
point or another, until 1920. Altogether, the team used forty collecting stations and surveyed 1,500 square miles of land.
The results of the investigation were published in Animal Life in Yosemite (1924).8
By 1915, Dixon had completed graduate school and subsequently joined the faculty at MVZ.9 Around this time, Dixon conducted
formal field work in the region of the southern Sierra Nevada with H. S. Swarth and Halstead White. The group traveled by
pack train, and in eight weeks covered areas including Horse Corral Meadow, Bullfrog Lake, Kearsarge Pass, Charlotte Lake,
and Hume Lake. Dixon’s group collected over 1,000 specimens, about 300 of which originated within the current Kings Canyon
In 1924, Dixon became involved in another long-term survey with Grinnell, this time investigating the Lassen Transect. Dixon,
Grinnell, and MVZ colleague Jean Linsdale covered a 3,000 square mile band of northern California running from the Sacramento
River to the Nevada border over a five year timespan. The team surveyed a wide variety of habitats throughout Lassen Volcanic
National Park, Eagle Lake, Lassen National Forest, and the Tehama Wildlife Area, as well as portions of the Great Basin ecological
region. Visiting dozens of sites, the team documented over 350 animal species and collected nearly 5,000 specimens, which
are still available for scientific research at MVZ. The survey results were later described in Vertebrate Natural History
of a Section of Northern California through the Lassen Peak Region (1930).11
Dixon’s work in the wildlife biology field during this period led him to be a major voice for the cause of wildlife protection
and conservation. In 1924, alarmed about the drop-off in numbers of fisher due to fur-trappers, Dixon urged the California
Fish and Game Commission to legislate a three year closed season on fisher trapping; however, his recommendation was ignored.12
Nearly twenty years later, E. Raymond Hall at MVZ reported the near extinction of the fisher in California. Hall questioned
the lack of action on the part of the California Fish and Game Commission and argued for an immediate action on Dixon’s earlier
In 1926, Dixon embarked on yet another expedition to Alaska, again sponsored by Thayer. This time Dixon was accompanied by
George Melendez Wright, a biology undergraduate student at U.C. Berkeley. Dixon and Wright spent 72 days at Mount McKinley
National Park (now Denali National Park and Preserve) collecting specimens and conducting field work. On May 28, 1926, at
4 PM, Wright discovered a surf bird nesting above the timberline of Mount McKinley. After alerting Dixon, the two men stayed
at the site and observed the nest overnight.14 This marked the first recorded sighting of a surf bird nest, and is considered
to be the last discovery of a North American bird’s nesting habitat.
Wright went on to join the National Park Service in 1927 as an Assistant Park Naturalist at Yosemite. Concerned about the
lack of scientific research and data about the park, he established a wildlife survey office for NPS, which he personally
funded for several years.15 Wright recruited Dixon to be an economic mammologist for his team, which Dixon accepted, leading
him to resign from MVZ in 1931.16 The newly formed wildlife survey team composed of Wright, Dixon, and U.C. Berkeley graduate
Ben H. Thompson spent its first season in the field starting in August, 1930.17 For the next few years they made several trips
throughout the West, always ending back at the wildlife office in Berkeley, CA. Dixon and his colleagues made an effort to
document wildlife conditions in western national parks and presented their conclusions on how to reduce the impact of human
activity on the parks’ fauna in Fauna of the National Parks of the United States: A Preliminary Survey of Faunal Relations
in Natural Parks (1933).18
On July 1, 1933, responsibility for the wildlife survey team was assumed by the NPS with the formation of the Wildlife Division;
Wright became division chief, while Dixon and Thompson were named staff biologists.19 When Wright moved his administrative
and research offices from Berkeley to Washington, D.C., Dixon stayed behind and continued his NPS work in the agency’s Western
Region. He returned to Mount McKinley National Park in 1932 and completed the survey of animal life begun by him and Wright
in 1926, publishing his findings in the third book of the Fauna Series, Fauna of the National Parks of the United States:
Birds and Mammals of Mount McKinley National Park (1938).20
In 1933, he became Director and an instructor at the Yosemite School of Field Natural History (commonly referred to as the
Yosemite Field School), where he taught for nine years.21 As an instructor, Dixon provided intensive instruction for the student
nature guides and attempted to instill an interest in field work in others by continuing to serve as an NPS field biologist.
He devoted a great deal of attention to the mule deer of Yosemite, and in 1934 his article “A Study of the Life History and
Food Habits of Mule Deer in California,” was published in California Fish and Game. During this time he also conducted wildlife
surveys throughout the western United States, with a great deal of focus spent in the areas of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National
Parks from 1933 to1937 and again from 1940 to1942.22
During the 1940s, Dixon was one of three NPS biologists (with Adolph Murie and Vic Cahalane) who were allowed to remain focused
on fieldwork, while all others were transferred to other NPS activities considered crucial to the war effort.23 However, his
progress on the investigation of Sequoia and Kings Canyon was eventually impeded by wartime cutbacks. By the time of his retirement
in March 1946, a book pertaining to his research on the parks remained incomplete. As Dixon’s poor health post-retirement
prevented him from progressing any further on the work, NPS wildlife biologist Lowell Sumner accepted the task to complete
it. Sumner himself had studied wildlife in the region for many years, and he brought new research to the project. The book
Birds and Mammals of the Sierra Nevada with Records from Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks by Lowell and Dixon was finally
completed in 1953, several years after Dixon’s death.24
Dixon had four children with his first wife, Mary: Barbara (b. 1916), Joseph C (b. 1918), Mary (b. 1920) and David (b. 1924).25
After his retirement from NPS, he spent his final years in his ranch home in Escondido, where he passed away on June 23, 1952.
He was survived by his widow, Ethel, and his children.26
Throughout his career with both MVZ and NPS, Dixon was an avid photographer. He had the opportunity to showcase several of
his photographs of wildlife produced while working for both institutions in the government publication Wildlife Portfolio
of the Western National Parks (1942). Dixon was also a productive writer, having many of his articles published in professional
journals, especially in The Condor, an international journal devoted to research of the biology of bird species. One of the
many highlights of his career included the discovery of a new variety of ptarmigan at Mount McKinley which was named after
him.27 Greatly admired by his students and colleagues in Yosemite, Dixon was considered a pioneer in wildlife research and
one of the most experienced field surveyors and collectors of his time.28 Dixon and his colleagues are now considered to be
forerunners of the current discipline of conservation biology. His research and resulting publications are of lasting value
and continue to be a primary resource for those interested in the biology and natural history of the national parks of the
western United States.
1 Carl P. Russell, “Death of Joseph S. Dixon,” Yosemite Nature Notes 31, no. 7 (1952): 4.
2 "United States Census, 1900," index and images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.1.1/M95Q-7YR : accessed
10 Dec 2012), Joseph S Dixon in household of Benjamin F Dixon, ED 177 Bernardo Township Escondido city, San Diego, California,
United States; citing sheet 15A, family 346, NARA microfilm publication T623, FHL microfilm 1240099.
3 Russell, “Death of Joseph S. Dixon,” 4.
4 Matthew Laubacher, “Cultures of Collection in Late Nineteenth Century American Natural History” (PhD diss, Arizona State
University, 2011), 223-225.
5 Joseph S. Dixon, “Some Experiences of a Collector in Alaska,” The Condor 9, no. 5 (1907): 128, accessed December 6, 2012,
6 Joseph S. Dixon, “Birds Observed between Point Barrow and Herschel Island on the Arctic Coast of Alaska,” The Condor 45,
no. 2 (1943): 49.
7 Ibid., 51.
8 Carl Parcher Russell, 100 Years in Yosemite: The Story of a Great Park and Its Friends (Yosemite National Park, CA: Yosemite
Natural History Association, 1968): 135.
9 “Historical People and Places: Joseph S. Dixon,” Sequoia Parks Foundation, accessed December 6, 2012, http://www.sequoiaparksfoundation.org/2011/historical-people-places-joseph-s-dixon/.
10 “Historical People,” Sequoia Parks Foundation, accessed December 6, 2012, http://www.sequoiaparksfoundation.org/2011/historical-people-places-joseph-s-dixon/.
11 “Lassen Transect,” Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, UC Berkeley, accessed December 6, 2012, http://mvz.berkeley.edu/Grinnell/lassen/index.html
12 E. Raymond Hall, “Gestation Period in the Fisher with Recommendations for the Animal’s Protection in California,” California
Fish and Game 28, no. 3 (1942): 143.
13 Ibid, 144.
14 Susan Shumaker, “George Melendez Wright,” Untold Stories from America’s National Parks, 175, http://www.pbs.org/nationalparks/about/untold-stories/
15 Ibid, 176.
16 “Historical People,” Sequoia Parks Foundation, accessed December 6, 2012, http://www.sequoiaparksfoundation.org/2011/historical-people-places-joseph-s-dixon/.
17 Shumaker, “George Melendez Wright,” 181.
18 Ibid, 180.
19 Ibid, 184.
20 Joseph S. Dixon, introduction to Fauna of the National Parks of the United States: Birds and Mammals of Mount McKinley
National Park (Washington, D.C.: National Park Service, 1938), accessed December 6, 2012, http://www.cr.nps.gov/history/online_books/fauna3/fauna0.htm.
21 Russell, “Death of Joseph S. Dixon,” 3.
22 “Historical People,” Sequoia Parks Foundation, accessed December 6, 2012, http://www.sequoiaparksfoundation.org/2011/historical-people-places-joseph-s-dixon/.
23 Shumaker, “George Melendez Wright,” 192.
24 “Historical People,” Sequoia Parks Foundation, accessed December 6, 2012, http://www.sequoiaparksfoundation.org/2011/historical-people-places-joseph-s-dixon/.
25 "United States Census, 1930," index and images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.1.1/XCXJ-F14 : accessed
6 Dec 2012), Joseph S Dixon, Berkeley, Alameda, California; citing enumeration district (ED) 0298, sheet 12A, family 163,
NARA microfilm publication T626, roll 111.
26 Russell, “Death of Joseph S. Dixon,” 3-4.
27 Ibid, 3.
28 Ibid, 3.