Many gifted educators are well-known not only for their contributions to the classroom, but also for outstanding accomplishments outside the realm of education. Such is the case for Blanche Evans Dean, a high school biology teacher who is also a renowned naturalist and conservationist from Alabama.
Blanche was born June 12, 1892, the youngest child of her parents, John and Catherine Evans. She was raised on her parents’ farm in Clay County, Alabama, on land her mother’s family had bought from the Creek Indians. Even at an early age, the young Blanche developed a keen interest in science, and exhibited a fondness for the plants and animals that inhabited the world around her.
As a teenager, Blanche attended Lineville High School and, after graduating in 1908, began teaching at the two-teacher school at Hatchett Creek Presbyterian Church. After deciding to make teaching her lifelong career, Blanche enrolled at Jacksonville Normal School, now known as Jacksonville State University, with a major in education. She later transferred to Valparaiso University in Indiana, from which she earned a teaching certificate at age 26.
After graduation, Blanche taught for three years at Shades Valley High School in Birmingham. In 1922, she took a break from teaching and entered the University of Alabama, where she earned a degree in chemistry in 1924. Once she completed this degree, she accepted a position as a biology teacher at Woodlawn High School in Birmingham, where she developed her hands-on, experience-based style of teaching. Blanche believed that students were better able to develop an understanding of birds, insects, and plants, and “a sense of being” for all living things by listening and observing first-hand, even getting down on their hands and knees.
In 1939, the innovative teacher married William Dean, but they divorced less than a year later. Blanche decided to keep her husband’s surname.
Blanche remained at Woodlawn High School until she retired in 1957, spending nearly 30 years teaching in the public school system. In the later years of her career, she became a passionate naturalist and conservationist. One of her projects in the 1940s was a campaign to have the U.S. Government declare Alabama’s Clear Creek Falls a national park. The area, threatened by dam construction, was rich in mountain laurel, contained a rare species of white azalea, and even supported a stand of Canadian hemlock. The campaign failed, however, and the falls were ultimately incorporated into Lewis Smith Lake.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Blanche helped to found the Alabama Ornithological Society, the Alabama Environmental Council, and the Alabama Conservation Council, then known as the Alabama Conservancy. Additionally, the indefatigable educator was involved in the Birmingham Audubon Society, the Alabama Academy of Science, the National Association of Biology Teachers, the American Fern Society, and Delta Kappa Gamma. In 1951, she established an Outdoor Nature Camp, which she directed every summer for thirteen years in order to educate teachers and other adults about Alabama’s natural history. In 1967, after assisting the Alabama Environmental Council in designating Alabama’s first national forest, the Willliam B. Bankhead National Forest, she was awarded a prize from the National Audubon Society for conservation education. Blanche was the first person from Alabama to receive such an award.
Blanche had always been frustrated with the lack of reference books available about Alabama’s botany and zoology, so after her retirement she wrote several books on the subject. She self-published Let’s Learn the Birds of Alabama in 1957, Trees and Shrubs in the Heart of Dixie in 1961, Let’s Learn the Ferns of Alabama in 1964, and Wildflowers of Alabama and Adjoining States in 1973. Her field guides remain the standard today.
This remarkable educator passed away May 31, 1974, at the age of 88, from complications caused by a major stroke. She was buried in the cemetery at Hatchett Creek Presbyterian Church. But she was not forgotten. In 1975, she was recognized with the Alabama Library Association’s first posthumous Annual Author Award for her non-fiction books. The Alabama Wildflower Society later established the Blanche E. Dean Scholarship Fund and named its Birmingham chapter after her. In 1985, Blanche was inducted into the Alabama Women’s Hall of Fame in 1985.