Edna Winifred Lawrence (1898-1987), 2023 Posthumous Distinguished Naturalist

Edna W. Lawrence, founder of RISD Nature Lab.

Edna Lawrence is the founder and namesake for the Edna Lawrence Nature Lab at Rhode Island School of Design. In her fifty-three years of teaching at the RISD, Lawrence inspired countless students to understand and appreciate nature and instructed them on how to observe deeply and depict accurately and artfully. Aside from her noted skills as a teacher, her greatest tool was a hands-on natural history collection that she established in 1937 with specimens she collected herself and continued to add to until (and past) her retirement in 1975. Her personal collection of 1,286 objects (including shells, butterflies, minerals, skeletons, seed pods and taxidermy) grew to more than 25,000 items by the time she retired and today the Nature Lab’s collection approaches 100,000 individual specimens.

Lawrence’s goal in establishing the Lab was to “open students’ eyes to the marvels of beauty in nature…of forms, space, color, texture, design and structure.” The novel concept that has made the difference is the nearly unmediated access she allowed students to natural history specimens. Seeing is believing, but touching and engaging is what breeds understanding and appreciation in many cases. Although Edna Lawrence’s Nature Lab looks akin to other natural history museums, it “breaks the rules” by encouraging students to handle specimens and learn tacitly as well as from an instructor’s lesson.

Edna W. Lawrence teaching in the RISD Nature Lab.

Ms. Lawrence may not have had a background in biology or fit the typical mold of a naturalist, but as an keen-eyed artist, a specimen collector, and most importantly a tireless and impactful instructor who worked far outside the box, she has had a major impact on generations of students who attending Rhode Island School of Design and then went off into the art and design world with a deeper appreciation and understanding of the natural one.

—Benedict L. Gagliardi

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