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A look into Dr. Louise Perry's life
October 26, 2017

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Earlier this month, J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge revealed a new interpretive kiosk at Perry Tract adjacent to the boardwalk at Gulfside City Park. The kiosk was made possible with help from the "Ding" Darling Wildlife Society - Friends of the Refuge, a grant from the Lee County Tourist Development Council and the City of Sanibel.

The kiosk features three panels that highlight the wildlife and shorebirds that inhabit the preserve, seashells and Dr. Louise Perry's life which little is known about.

Joanne Sawhill Griffin whose husband, Peter B. Griffin is one of the great step-grandchildren of Dr. Perry, said the physician had an extensive scientific background. While she was living in Asheville, North Carolina, with her husband, Nelson Robinson Perry whom she married in 1915, Dr. Perry was known as one of the first female ophthalmologists in the country.

In 1918, she and her husband began vacationing on Sanibel during the winter. For the first few years, the couple stayed in the Casa Ybel Resort. In 1926, the couple made a permanent move to Sanibel. The Perrys built a home on the property where Perry Tract is located today. The 4-plus acres surrounding the property was purchased from the Bailey family in 1933.

While living on Sanibel, Dr. Perry took up an interest in shells and the creatures who make them and live in them. In 1926, her husband built her a laboratory where she could keep aquariums and continue with her scientific studies. After several years, she became a malacologist who was known all over the world.

"She discovered and named many shells. I read somewhere that she named 15," Griffin said. "She would go out with a local boat man, George Underhill, and his son and dredge in deep water to find shells. They had a specially-equipped boat that she went on. So, she wasn't just walking on the beach picking up sand dollars - she really had developed a broad knowledge."

Dr. Perry went on to write two books about her studies. In 1940, she published, "Marine Shells of the Southwest Coast of Florida."

"With this book, she was acknowledged as writing the definitive study on these shells," Griffin said.

In 1955, she wrote "Marine Shells of the Western Coast of Florida" which is an updated version of her first book.

Up until Pearl Harbor, Dr. Perry maintained correspondence with Japanese Emperor Hirohito - the two bonded over their mutual admiration over marine fossils.

"When she wrote her first book, Hirohito wrote to her, he was an admirer of her work. One of the letters he wrote to her was in praise of her book," Griffin said.

While living on Sanibel, Dr. Perry remained heavily involved in the community. In 1923, she became the first president of the Sanibel Community Association and was also the director of the annual Sanibel Shell Show.

According to an article that was published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1941 about Dr. Perry's life, the islanders looked to her for medical attention since there wasn't an official doctor on the island. When patients would ask how much they owe her, she would respond with "We are glad to help each other on Sanibel for nothing."

Known for being a generous woman, Dr. Perry donated her extensive collection of shells to Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida. She also donated a lectureship to the University of North Carolina known as the Merrimon Lecture in Medicine, which is still given annually.

In addition to her fascination with mollusks, Dr. Perry had an interest in sport fishing, marine animals and natural history. She was also extremely well-traveled.

"She had gone to Egypt, many places in Europe like France and Italy, Poland, Greece, Turkey, Norway. For a woman to travel back then would have been extremely difficult but she was obviously curious, she enjoyed learning and being able to explain that for other people," Griffin said.

Before Dr. Perry wrote her two books, she was the author of many scientific papers.

"She was living on Sanibel full-time by 1926 and she began making careful observations and drawings. For example, (she made an observation) of a four foot long bonefish that washed up on Sanibel in May 1926 which she showed to E.W. Gudger of the Museum of Natural History in New York. She contributed short pieces on natural history observations to several scientific journals," Griffin said.

Griffin said Dr. Perry received praise from many people on how accurate her findings were.

"She really got lost in history, even with all her contributions," Griffin said.

In 1953, Dr. Perry wrote up her will. In it, she put down that she wanted her property donated to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service - the property now belongs to J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge which is their only Gulf-front preserve. In the last years, of her life, Dr. Perry returned to Asheville and lived at the Battery Park Hotel until her death in 1962.

During the dedication ceremony Friday, Oct. 6 for the kiosk, Refuge Manager Paul Tritaik said the Perry Tract was added to the refuge in 1963, a year after Perry's passing.

"She wanted it donated for the wildlife. One of the most notable wildlife that is associated with the Perry Tract are the snowy plovers that nest on the beach side. We work with the city and SCCF in protecting those birds," Tritaik said. "Dr. Perry was really a remarkable person. We not only wanted to highlight that portion of the refuge which has been overlooked for a long time but also the contributions of Dr. Perry - not only to the refuge, but to Sanibel and Captiva. She was one of the first people to work with "Ding" Darling to help conserve land on the island back when they were forming a group to help protect wildlife. Her commitment to conservation goes back all the way to that time."

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