New Brunswick

His boyhood curiosity sparked a 43-year museum career. Now, Don McAlpine is set to retire

Don McAlpine was an outdoorsy, inquiring kid — the sort of born explorer who 'sprang from the womb with a bug net in one hand and a collecting jar in the other.'  

From flipping over rocks to globe-trotting adventures: N.B. Museum curator reflects on life's journey

A black and white photo of a young boy with a big smile cuddling a turtle.
Don McAlpine, pictured as a 13-year-old cuddling a wood turtle in 1969, would later become the head of the natural history department at the New Brunswick Museum. (Submitted by Don McAlpine )

Don McAlpine was an outdoorsy, inquiring kid — the sort of born explorer who "sprang from the womb with a bug net in one hand and a collecting jar in the other," he said.   

Now, after 43 years, the longtime natural history curator and research chair of zoology at the New Brunswick Museum is preparing to retire.

His research over the decades is impossible to classify: birds, bats, mollusks, millipedes, shrews, seals, whales, worms, to name just some of the life forms he's come to know well.

In his youth, McAlpine travelled the world pursuing esoteric gigs: a stint of small mammal work in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, a contract identifying aquatic worms (rate: 50 cents per worm), short-notice jaunts to Iceland and Alaska, and work on endangered species management in the Channel Islands. 

WATCH | 'I felt it was time for a number of reasons' 

From flesh-eating beetles to vats of pickled turtles, Don McAlpine has some stories

2 months ago
Duration 2:49
‘Sprang from the womb with a bug net in one hand and a collecting jar in the other.' Don McAlpine reflects on a 43-year career as natural history curator and research chair of zoology at the New Brunswick Museum.

He's been interviewed at least 31 times on CBC TV on topics ranging from white-nose syndrome to alleged sightings of the eastern cougar.

"I had at one point thought I would die in the saddle," McAlpine said.

"But on further reflection, I had visions of keeling over into a vat of pickled turtles some morning, and thought 'maybe not such a good idea.'"

Now, he's reflecting on what it's all meant.

A man in a full hazmat suit and hard hat in a snow and ice-encrusted cave opening.
McAlpine's career has taken him all over the world — including to the inside of White Cave in Albert County, where he conducted a 2014 winter bat survey. (Submitted by K. Vanderwolf/New Brunswick Museum -Musée du Nouveau-Brunswick)

Born to be wild 

"I have seen a lot of changes over 43 years. We've come a long way."

From an early age, "I was flipping rocks and logs and checking to see what was crawling around underneath," McAlpine said.

"I dragged a lot of live stuff into the house. I had a box of flesh-eating beetles under my bed at one period. And my mother didn't complain too loudly about it. I was fortunate that way."

When McAlpine was nine, his mother looked to satisfy his endless questions by taking him on an ultimately life-altering trip to the New Brunswick Museum on Douglas Avenue. There, he met then-natural sciences curator Dr. W. Austin Squires.

A smiling man in a pickup truck in the middle of the wilderness.
McAlpine, in his element, out in the field. (Submitted by Karen Vanderwolf)

"I was ushered into the office of the great man," McAlpine recalled.

"He showed me a number of interesting things in his office, including the dried carcass of a six-legged frog that he had in a jar."

Enthralled, McAlpine turned his attention to "a glass of clear fluid on the windowsill.

I asked him, 'So — what's that? And he said, towering over me, 'Well, that's a glass of water in case I get thirsty.' So that was my introduction to the museum."

A vintage 1960s photo of the old New Brunswick Museum facade.
The New Brunswick Museum on Douglas Avenue as it appeared in the 1960s, when McAlpine was a boy. 'Had I not had the opportunities to come in to the museum, it's hard to say where things would have gone.' (New Brunswick Museum - Musée du Nouveau Brunswick. Accession#: X13411)

McAlpine was hooked. 

By age 14, he was volunteering his weekends to mount plant specimens — so reliably, they gave the teenager a key to the building.

By 16, he was working as a summer student. In his spare time, he explored local caves and wrote articles about the life forms he encountered. 

"By the time I was 19 or 20 I was submitting stuff to some of the peer-reviewed journals," he said. 

True love — in the fruit bat cage

McAlpine spent much of his early twenties living out of a backpack, doing wildlife research around the world. 

He met his future wife, Lynne, in 1981 on the Channel Islands, an archipelago in the English Channel off the French coast of Normandy, where he was starting work at the Jersey Zoo (now the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust.)

She was landscaping a snow leopard enclosure as a volunteer with the British Conservation Corp. He was lovestruck. 

A black and white photo of three young museum researchers posing with a small piece of whale bone.
McAlpine, middle, posing in front of a giant sperm whale bone in 1987 with curator of geology Dr. Randall Miller and botany curator Stephen Clayden. (New Brunswick Museum -Musée du Nouveau-Brunswick: Accession # NBM-F1-52)

"I proposed to my wife three days after I met her," he said.

"I was standing in the fruit bat cage with a paint scraper in one hand, scraping bat poop off the walls."

Five months later, they were married.

A black and white photo os a woman wit two dead seal specimens.
Lynne McAlpine, pictured in June 1993, with seals being rehabilitated for eventual release to the wild. Her husband credits Lynne, in large part, with his decision to return to New Brunswick after travelling the world. (Submitted by Don McAlpine )

"Since I would probably have been voted 'least likely to wed,' my parents were a bit skeptical when I phoned home and told them," he said.  

It was time, he thought, to find a permanent job.

He contacted the New Brunswick Museum to see if there might be any opportunities — and learned somebody was going on maternity leave.

"So I came back for that six-month contract with Lynne, my new wife, and I've been here for 43 years ever since," he said. "Had it not been for Lynne, there is some chance I would never have landed back in New Brunswick."

A close up of a man with a bat on his shoulder
McAlpine, hanging out with a bat specimen in 2019. (Joseph Tunney/CBC)

Hard work, good times

Fortunately, "New Brunswick is so rich, so diverse for a small area that we don't need to go to the far ends of the world to find new and interesting things," said McAlpine's longtime colleague, and former museum curator of botany and mycology, Stephen Clayden.

McAlpine's career has been "very, very productive," Clayden said. As illustrated by the snap marriage proposal in the bat enclosure, "he's a take-charge sort of person in both professional life, and in his personal life."

A group of students on a beach in the middle of conducting scientific work in the summer.
McAlpine, with one of the many groups of students he's worked with over the years, salvaging a right whale skeleton on Grand Manan in July 2006. (Submitted by the New Brunswick Museum - Musée du Nouveau Brunswick)

One of McAlpine's more ambitious projects has been BiotaNB, an annual research trip which for 15 years has brought together taxonomic experts, students, volunteers and artists-in-residence for two weeks of intensive field studies in New Brunswick's protected natural areas.

McAlpine describes BiotaNB as "serious work — but committed people having a good time together."

"He's been very good at creating a community," Clayden said. 

Still a thrill

Recently, colleagues arranged to honour McAlpine with a special issue of Canadian Field Naturalist — a century-old peer-reviewed journal — dedicated to his research achievements. It's titled "Honouring Donald F. McAlpine: Contributions to the Natural History of the Canadian Maritimes."

For McAlpine, it's a distinction of the highest order. 

It's the sort of thing that usually happens, he said, "after you're dead."

A man stands outside with the remains of a dead bird
McAlpine, brandishing the remains of a spoonbill on Douglas Avenue. (Shane Fowler/CBC)

Certainly, McAlpine is comfortable dealing with the mortality of all living things. But there's a lot of life to live after retirement.

He sees stepping down from his role as curator at the end of the year as a metamorphosis, rather than a conclusion. There will be books to write and more research to undertake. 

"It's still a thrill to go into the collections every day and work with material that someone collected over 100 years ago," he said. 

Stephen Clayden expects McAlpine will continue to make regular migrations to the museum. 

"Nobody who knows Don thinks he's really going to retire," Clayden said. 

Projects like BiotaNB will also continue, fuelling new discoveries about New Brunswick.

But next year, someone else will be sitting at McAlpine's old oak desk — which once belonged to Dr. William McIntosh (1867-1950), the first director of the New Brunswick Museum.

McAlpine's legacy echoes that of many of old-school researchers and contributors who helped build the museum: a lifetime dedicated to voracious, wide-ranging research and public education. 

A smiling man sits in a barren industrial space at an antique oak desk.
McAlpine, pictured at his historic work station at the museum's temporary research and collections centre at 228 Lancaster Ave. (Julia Wright/CBC)

While he won't be on staff when it happens, McAlpine looks forward to seeing the museum build its new permanent home.

The museum has been closed to the public since 2020 because of space problems — although last year, former museum chair Kathryn Hamer told the public accounts committee at the provincial legislature work on a new home for the museum was expected to begin in 2024. That work is intended to include a 160,000-square-foot addition and the renovation to the 1934 building McAlpine visited as a boy. 

A rendering of a 1934 museum with modern buildings in the background.
A rendering of what the new New Brunswick Museum location could look like, when complete. (New Brunswick Museum - Musée du Nouveau Brunswick)

"Hopefully, we'll be well looked-after and in new facilities that will be available for the public and for researchers in the future," he said.

As McAlpine's career has shown, museums are living institutions. Part of why they exist is is to open the eyes of the next generations of New Brunswickers to the discoveries and opportunities that exist here at home. 

A middle-aged man in a headlamp and white gloves handling a small bat.
McAlpine, pictured bat-banding at 2 a.m. in Berryton Cave in Hillsborough County, looks forwarding to seeing what the future holds for the institution at which he's spent more than half of his life. (Submitted by K. Vanderwolf/New Brunswick Museum -Musée du Nouveau-Brunswick )

All of his adventures, McAlpine said, can be traced back to those formative early museum visits.

Without those experiences, "it's hard to say where things would have gone. The museum continues to play that role for others now. 

"I was really fortunate in that I was born in Saint John, in the same city where the museum is located."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Julia Wright

Host, Information Morning Saint John

Julia Wright is the host of Information Morning Saint John on CBC Radio 1. She previously worked as a digital reporter focused on stories from southwestern New Brunswick. She has a master's degree in English from McGill University, and has been with the CBC since 2016. You can reach her at julia.wright@cbc.ca.

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