Wilbur (Bill) Mayhew, professor and NRS co-founder, 1920–2014

by Iqbal Pittalwala, UC Riverside, and Kathleen M. Wong, UC Natural Reserve System

Pioneering ecologist dedicated himself to securing natural reserves for the University of California


Professor Emeritus Wilbur (Bill) W. Mayhew, a co-founder of the UC Natural Reserve System and an original faculty member of the University of California, Riverside campus, died on Sept. 19, 2014.

Mayhew served as an active professor in the Department of Zoology until his retirement in1989.  Prior to that, Mayhew was a decorated veteran of World War II who completed his military service with a Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal, Purple Heart, and Presidential Unit Citation with two oak leaf clusters. 

After the war he earned his bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees in zoology from UC Berkeley (1948, 1951, and 1953, respectively). His graduate research was conducted under the mentorship of A. Starker Leopold.

Mayhew joined the UC Riverside faculty in 1954. Over the next 36 years, he taught more than 5,600 students, many in field classes that brought students to NRS reserves and other wildland sites to learn from nature.

“Professor Mayhew was a visionary and leader,” said Kimberly Hammond, a professor of biology at UC Riverside and the director of the UC Riverside Natural Reserve System. “He not only introduced thousands of students to the beauty of the natural world but he was deeply involved in the protection of natural California habitats throughout the state.”

In the early 1960s, with rare vision and foresight Mayhew, Ken Norris of UC Santa Cruz, and Mildred Mathias of UC Los Angeles foresaw the urbanization of California and the loss of natural areas for research and teaching. They were the founders of the UC Natural Reserve System, which today is comprised of 39 reserves with more than 130,000 acres of protected land for research and teaching.

Mayhew was instrumental in obtaining lands for the nascent NRS. In the late 1950s, he helped persuade developer and UC Regent Philip L. Boyd to donate an extensive canyon and floodplain in the Coachella Valley to UC Riverside for desert research. When the NRS was founded in 1965, Boyd Deep Canyon Desert Research Center became one of its first seven sites. Mayhew served as the reserve’s faculty manager for the next 25 years.

Mayhew took it upon himself to preserve as many California habitats for the NRS as he could. He had a knack for convincing skeptical property owners, hesitant heirs, agency officials, and others to make  their lands available for study and teaching.

“If I were out trying to make some money on land, I couldn’t do it. But doing it for the University, I could talk to the devil himself to try to get the land,” Mayhew said in a 1998 oral history. By the time Mayhew retired in 1990, he had helped acquire an astonishing 16 reserves for the system.

Norris once wrote of Mayhew that he had “shown the way for people of all stripes and persuasions to take part in attempts to preserve and protect important parts of wild America, and he has often succeeded in the face of seemingly insurmountable problems in the way. Priceless wildlife reserves have been established because of him, including ones of thousands of acres of now totally unobtainable wildland adjacent to high-priced real estate.”

“Mayhew’s wife, Corinne, and family were highly supportive of his legacy in protecting California’s critical habitat and energizing young minds about the natural world,” Hammond said.

At his passing, Mayhew was 94 years old.

One response to “Wilbur (Bill) Mayhew, professor and NRS co-founder, 1920–2014”

  1. Wilber (Bill) Mayhew 1920-2014 | Sweeney Granite Mountains Desert Research Center

    An oral history interview is available online.  Obituaries for Wilbur Mayhew can be found here: UCR Today, UCNRS