William O. Douglas

William O. Douglas is known for having been the longest running Supreme Court Justice in United States history, holding his position for over 35 years (1939-1975). During his lengthy stay and commitment to the law, Douglas pushed the envelope on many controversial topics including the preservation and protection of wilderness across the United States, earning him the nickname "Wild Bill" and the criticism of the public and other government officials. Douglas never wavered in his stance and today holds a position in the Ecology Hall of Fame for his dedication to conservation. 

William Orville Douglas was born on October 16, 1898 in Maine, Minnesota to Reverend William and Julia Douglas. Although many accounts of Douglas' childhood suggest he had polio, this is considered to be an untrue embellishment of an unknown intestinal illness he suffered around age two. When he was five years old, his father, who suffered from stomach ulcers, died in Portland, Oregon and Julia Douglas moved the family to Yakima, Washington, where the mountains would come to symbolize serenity and calm in contrast to this early turmoil. 

Douglas attended Yakima High School and graduated in 1916 as valedictorian of his class. In response to his academic success, Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington awarded him a partial scholarship. Douglas again achieved scholastic success and graduated from Whitman, Phi Beta Kappa, in 1920 with a bachelor of arts in English and Economics. From 1920 to 1921 he taught Latin and English at a local Yakima high school. 

Wanting to pursue a career in law, Douglas attended Columbia University from 1923 to 1925 graduating with a degree in law as second in his class. He spent the next several months working for the prominent Wall Street law firm, Cravath, Swaine and Moore, and then returned to Columbia to accept a position as a professor. In 1928, Douglas moved to work at Yale Law School, where he stayed for six years. In 1934, interested in Franklin D. Roosevelt's "New Deal" proposal, he left Yale to work for the United States Securities and Exchange Commission. In this position Douglas was appointed advisor to the President with who he had become friends. In 1937 he became chairman of the Commission. 

When Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis retired in 1939, Roosevelt nominated Douglas to the Court. At 40 years of age Douglas was one of the youngest individuals ever appointed. 

Early in his career Douglas focused on the freedoms stated in the Bill of Rights, heavily opposing any act of censorship. Supported by Roosevelt, Douglas was considered as a nominee for United States vice-president several times (1940, 1944 and 1948) though he refused to run for office. He remained in his position as a Justice fighting for the powerless and disenfranchised citizens of the country. 

Throughout the 1950's and 1960's he contributed many of his efforts and numerous writings to the conservation movement. In 1954 he organized a 189-mile hike along the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal to protest eminent highway construction in the area. The protest was successful and the plans for the highway were abandoned. In 1958 he organized a similar hike along a portion of the beach in Olympic National Park in opposition to another highway. These plans for road construction were aborted as well.

From 1960 to 1962 Douglas served on the Board of Directors of the blossoming Sierra Club, and in 1962 wrote a supportive review of Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring. His book A Wilderness Bill of Rights was published in 1965 in which he spoke of the importance of the preservation of "conservation parks." In 1967 he fought in support of preserving the Red River Gorge in eastern Kentucky and had the Douglas Trail named in his honor. Douglas published a book in 1969 entitled Points of Rebellion and contributed a written piece to the liberal Evergreen Magazine. In a guide published by the Appalachian Trail Club, Douglas is also credited with having hiked the entire Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. 

As a Court Justice, Douglas advocated heavily for the rights to free speech stated in the First Amendment and fought for the rights of individuals against the government, often stirring up controversy in response to his literal interpretations - in his mind even inanimate objects had rights in court. Though disconcerting to other members of the government, Douglas' position was beneficial to the goals and desires of the environmental movement. 

In the 1972 case, Sierra Club vs. Morton, Justice Douglas stated,

"Inanimate objects are sometimes parties in litigation...So it should be as respects valleys, alpine meadows, rivers, lakes, estuaries, beaches, ridges, groves of trees, swampland, or even the air that feels the destructive pressures of modern technology and modern life. The river, for example, is the living symbol of all the life it sustains and nourishes - fish, aquatic insects, water ouzels, otter, fisher, deer, elk, bear, and all other animals, including man, who are dependent on it or who enjoy it for its sight, its sound, or its life. The river as plaintiff speaks for the ecological unit of life that is part of it."

Douglas retired three years later on November 18, 1975 succumbing to ill health brought on by a stroke he suffered a year earlier. It seems that politics and the rights of the people and environment had been his first love throughout his life. Marriage was often a struggle for him and three out his four marriages ended in divorce. With his first wife, Mildred Riddle he had his only two children, Mildred and William Jr. His fourth marriage to Cathleen Heffernan took place in 1966 and lasted until his death. William O. Douglas died at the age of 81 from a second stroke on January 19, 1980 at Walter Reed Hospital in Maryland and was buried in Arlington Cemetery. 

The William O. Douglas Wilderness that neighbors Mount Rainier National Park was named in his honor for his dedicated work in the preservation of wild places. 


Garrow, D. (2003, April 14). The Tragedy of William O. Douglas. The Nation.

Gosden, S. (2006). Ecology Hall of Fame: William O. Douglas.

Murphy, B. A. (2003). Wild Bill: The Legend and Life of William O. Douglas. New York: Random House. 

Wikipedia. William O. Douglas.