Life through the Lens of a Doctor-Birder

by John H. Fitchen, MD

In Life through the Lens of a Doctor-Birder, we learn that Dr. John Fitchen has lived a life driven by wonder—for the natural world and the mysteries of science.

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John Fitchen has captured the unimaginable highs and lows, elation and heartbreak, humor and sorrow associated with the assumption of the title doctor.

Walter J. McDonald, md, macp

Emeritus CEO, American College of Physicians


Catch Dr. Fitchen on episode #25 of the Bird Banter podcast.

Bird Banter Podcast

Episode #25 with Dr. John Fitchen

The Bird Banter Podcast

At a Glance

Life through the Lens of a Doctor-Birder
John H. Fitchen, MD
Page Count
Trim Size
5.5″ × 8.5″


6750 SW Franklin St, Ste. A
Portland, OR 97223-2542
Phone: (503) 968-6777
Fax: (503) 968-6779








We not only learn a lot about birds, birders, and doctors, but ultimately we get to be inside the eyes of a consummate observer. Seldom has sheer seeing been so rich and enjoyable.

Alan Contreras

co-editor, Birds of Oregon; author of Afield: Forty Years of Birding the American West

About the Book

From a childhood enriched by butterflies and Gothic cathedrals, to a medical career in hematology, and his work developing a lifesaving HIV-detection test, Fitchen has been an avid and good-humored observer of life. And while most would have been satisfied to retire after a career in academic medicine and biotechnology, Fitchen embarked on a second act, becoming a well-known Oregon birder and author of Birding Portland and Multnomah County.

An informative, unusual, occasionally challenging, and generally amiable account by a physician and nature lover.

Kirkus Reviews Read the Full Review


Chapter 1 Dad: Butterflies, Caterpillars, and Cathedrals

Left: Great spangled fritillary (Speyeria cybele) (photo by Jim P. Brock); Right: Atlantis fritillary (Speyeria atlantis) (photo by James Dunford)

I was eight years old and my heart was pounding. Behind our house and across the creek, a spectacular butterfly had just landed in a meadow of low grass and milkweed. I gripped my net with white knuckles and contemplated my next move. Even at my tender age, I knew right away this was not the common great spangled fritillary, but a close relative, Atlantis fritillary, coveted in upstate New York. The names always seemed reversed: shouldn’t the rarer and splashier butterfly get the “great spangled” billing? Though outwardly similar, the smaller size, more intense coloration, and diagnostic black margins on the upper side of the wings confirmed that this was an Atlantis.

The year was 1953. Back then, the rules of the game were to preserve and mount specimens to display in some prominent place as a testament to one’s prowess as an accomplished naturalist. But that meant you had to catch them first. A simple round net with a two- to three-foot-long handle was used for this purpose. Two basic techniques were employed: a straight downward thrust or a lateral sweep. As a child, I took to the simpler downward thrust, but of late my father had been encouraging me to learn the sweep. I knew he would be hugely pleased and excited with my catch, especially if I could accomplish it with the sweep. Given the perch of the Atlantis in the low grass, this was of course all wrong—low-perching butterflies should be captured with the downward thrust, and high-perching butterflies should be caught with the sweep. But alas, I didn’t yet understand the niceties and figured the grown-up technique was the better choice.

Disaster! The rim of the net got caught in the thick grass, and the butterfly flew calmly away, out of reach, and then out of sight. Why didn’t Dad tell me when to use the sweep! I burst into tears, sobbing as I ran home, where he was mowing the back yard. I threw myself into his arms, beating my head into his chest, unable at first to speak between sobs. Finally I was able to blurt out, “Atlantis!” I was furious—with my dad, with myself, with the world.

Over time, I came to appreciate Dad’s deep respect for and understanding of the natural world. He was a rigorous naturalist, and he wanted to pass that rigor along to me. I remember our times looking for butterflies with great fondness. Nearly fifty years later, a few days before he died, I wrote him a poem recalling those times together.

I wrapped my whole hand around a single finger

Of the tall man who walked beside me.

He helped me find cocoons (redbark was best).

We put them in jars on the sunporch to hatch.

He taught me that fritillaries favor milkweed

And painted ladies like to stop on thistles.

We walked the dirt roads together, wordless but at one,

And in “Quiet Corner” listened to the silence.

Now the single finger’s mine and the hand my son’s.

In easy step we walk the paths that show us Nature’s ways.

I see again through boyish eyes the simple and the wondrous,

And pass to mine what came from you and ever is among us.

In his professional life my father was a professor of fine arts and a scholar of Gothic architecture. On the side, he was also a very clever fellow. In the mid-1960s while I was off at college, he dreamed up a plan to eradicate the eastern tent caterpillar (Malacosoma americanum) from a sizeable chunk of the Chenango River Valley of central New York. In its worst outbursts, this scourge could completely defoliate tens of thousands of acres of forestland.

For years in the countryside around my hometown of Hamilton, New York, the Boy Scouts had undertaken an annual project intended to slow the spread of this noisome insect. Their methodology involved burning the “tents”—either in situ (at branching points in the affected trees), or after infested limbs were cut from trees and consolidated for burning at a safe distance. Though well-intentioned, their effort was largely ineffectual and caused damage to the very trees they were meant to save.

Enter John F. Fitchen, III. Before choosing a strategy, he did some research. He learned that tent caterpillars lay their eggs in late summer as a cylindrical nodule wrapped around small twigs, each “cluster” containing 150 to 350 eggs. The eggs are laid near the tip of the twig so that when they hatch in early spring, the tender, succulent leaf buds will be close at hand.

Armed with this critical knowledge, Dad set about attacking the tent caterpillar population in and around Hamilton—no fireworks, no sawing off of limbs, just a simple rotation of the wrist to snap off twigs and drop them to the ground away from the budding leaves, out of reach of hungry hatchlings. He estimated that over the course of five or six years of winter weekends, he destroyed over a million eggs. If that seems unlikely, do the math: 5 years, 10 outings per year, 100 egg clusters per day, 250 eggs per cluster or 5 x 10 x 100 x 250 = 1,250,000 total. In a similar time span, the Scouts might burn a couple hundred tents, damaging the trees in the process. Not wanting to sully the good name of the Scouts, Dad was quiet about his results, telling only family and close friends—and, off the record, the Boy Scout authorities, hoping they would adopt his approach. Alas, little egg balls don’t have nearly the thrill of burning tents and I fear his advice went unheeded. However, by the time he had finished his work, there were very few caterpillars left to be found and destroyed.

When I learned about Dad’s feat of eradicating the caterpillars, I was struck by his economical approach to a seemingly complicated problem. How do you wipe out more than a million tent caterpillars without harming the trees they occupy? It turned out, once you knew the secret, it was a fairly simple task. Research, contemplation, and persistence yield results.

I took note.

In 1953 and again in 1959, Dad took a sabbatical from Colgate University to study the Gothic cathedrals of Europe, especially those in France. On the first of these trips, he brought the whole family—Mother, eldest son Allen (“Skip,” sixteen), middle son Leigh (fourteen), and me (seven). We purchased a VW Bug convertible, every square inch of which was precisely occupied by us and our luggage. Being the youngest and the smallest, I was inevitably relegated to the middle back seat—what my boys would call the “bitch seat.” Though seemingly disadvantageous to me, this family dynamic worked in my favor—Skip and Leigh had little interest in cathedrals, especially when the alternative was checking out les jeune filles who congregated in the cafes lining the central square. Mother orchestrated their comings and goings, leaving me with Dad to explore the impressive buildings that were the focus of the towns and cities we visited.

The purpose of the four-month excursion was to assess, firsthand, the manner in which these extraordinary twelfth- to sixteenth-century buildings had been erected. Unlike the scholars who had written extensively about the esthetics of cathedrals, Dad wanted to determine how they were actually constructed, how stones were placed upon stones, how vaults and buttresses absorbed and redirected the weight of the heavy lead roofs.

He came armed with an array of assets to apply to the task—though he spoke little conversational French, he could read medieval French and was a trained architect and tenured professor of fine arts. We would track down the building supervisor and explain, largely by way of sketches Dad drew on the spot, what we wanted to see. This meant that I got to clamber around the inner features of the building, up and down spiral staircases, on top of the vaults, under the lead roof, among the arches and buttresses, literally touching the elements that made it all stand up. Some of these on-site sketches were subsequently transformed into the formal illustrations that appeared in his book The Construction of Gothic Cathedrals (Oxford University Press, 1961). The drawings I liked the best had ropes. These simple elements provided a sense of scale, action, and a work in progress.

Impressed by the quality and detail of the sketches, the superintendent would take us wherever we wanted to go. Through the magic of Dad’s drawings, we became privy to the interstices of the greatest cathedrals of France—Chartres, Reims, Amiens, Beauvais, Rouen, and Notre Dame, to name a few. My favorite was Vézelay, a Romanesque/Gothic cathedral constructed mostly in the twelfth century. It was made of local limestone. Lit by the plain-glass windows at the east end of the building, the white limestone produced a dramatic glow in the apse behind the altar.

Having seen the spectacular stained-glass windows of Chartres, where one is uplifted by the glory of luminous color, I was amazed that an equally compelling effect could be produced by the plain windows of Vézelay.

Later in the trip we travelled to England to visit relatives, and took a side trip to check out Salisbury Cathedral. In keeping with the style of British cathedrals, the dominant feature of this one was a very tall spire at the crossing, dwarfing the rather modest vaults rising above the nave. While others were drawn to the massive tower, I walked in, looked up, and declared to my family, “What a short church!”

The indelible images of 1953 were reinforced six years later when we returned to France, this time as a threesome (my brothers were in college) to refine observations and fill any gaps. Though I would have preferred to mingle furtively with the girls in the cafes, I was drawn nonetheless to the magnificence of the cathedrals. Some five years after that, as a freshman at Amherst College, I took the fine arts survey course, the mid-year segment of which featured extensive coverage of Gothic architecture. To help us prepare for the test on this topic, our professor hung pictures of a series of cathedrals on a wall of the art building. While others struggled to memorize the images, looking for irrelevant clues (is the chandelier on the left or the right? are there twenty or thirty rows of seats in the nave?), I walked along the hall ticking off the cathedrals with ease, pointing out the diagnostic features that differentiated one from the next. I aced the test.


When one observes a bird while birding, it isn’t just “seen” or “acquired”—to the birder, it is “had.” In John H. Fitchen’s memoir, he writes “One may see a small form flit by, but to get it, to know what it is beyond a reasonable doubt—to have it, to take it—you must see (or hear) specific things.” Dr. Fitchen’s memoir Life Through the Lens of a Doctor-Birder is written with the finely tuned sensitivity of a birder. He has not just seen life; as demonstrated in this memoir, he’s taken it.

Red City Review Read the Full Review

About the Author

Author John H. Fitchen, MD
Studio McDermott/Michael McDermott

John H. Fitchen, MD, is an Emeritus Professor of Medicine at Oregon Health & Science University. After nearly twenty years in academics, he accepted a leadership role at Epitope, Inc., the Portland-based biotech company that developed OraSure, the first and only oral HIV test. He is the author of Birding Portland and Multnomah County, and has published articles in The Atlantic, Birding, The New England Journal of Medicine and dozens of other peer-reviewed medical journals. He is an avid birder and lives in Portland, Oregon, with his wife Ellen.

This is one funny, engaging, and informative piece of writing.

Joseph Kimble

Distinguished Professor Emeritus at WMU–Cooley Law School, author of three popular books and many scholarly articles on plain writing

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