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In Memoriam: Eleanor Torrey West, GCA Medalist


February 09, 2021

Recipient of the GCA’s 2003 Cynthia Pratt Laughlin Medal

Eleanor Torrey West (1913-2021), recipient of the GCA’s 2003 Cynthia Pratt Laughlin Medal, passed away January 17, 2021. West, better known to her friends as Sandy, dedicated her life to preserving Ossabaw Island, a 26,000-acre Heritage Preserve off the coast of Georgia. Her love of the island began in childhood, shortly after her parents purchased Ossabaw Island in 1924 as their winter retreat.

West and her late brother’s children inherited Ossabaw in 1959, and in 1961, she and her husband founded the Ossabaw Island Project, an interdisciplinary creative program where painters, scientists, writers, and intellectuals could gather and draw inspiration from the natural surroundings. A  friendship with Eugene Odum, a respected University of Georgia ecologist, sparked her interest in the environment and conservation — a passion that shaped the rest of her life and the island’s fate. The Genesis Project, begun in 1970, invited college students and others to live off the grid in treehouses and sustainable cabins while working on projects in the sciences and the arts. Both the Ossabaw Island Project and the Genesis Project ended in 1982.

In an effort to maintain Ossabaw Island as a heritage preserve, she and her family sold the island to the State of Georgia in 1978, ensuring that the island would remain safe from development. The sale stipulated that Ossabaw Island be declared Georgia’s first heritage preserve—set aside in perpetuity for scientific, educational, and cultural uses only. Today, the island is managed by the State of Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources and the Ossabaw Island Foundation, a non-profit organization committed to carrying forward the legacy of Sandy’s love affair with the island and preserving the island as a resource for natural, scientific or cultural education, research, or study.

The GCA’s Cynthia Pratt Laughlin Medal is awarded for outstanding achievement in environmental protection and the maintenance of the quality of life. It was presented in 2003 to Eleanor Torrey West for preserving, in this era of unchecked consumption, rampant development, and needless waste, Ossabaw Island, Georgia's 26,000 acres of ecological importance and pristine beauty.

Photo credit: Robert S. Cooper Photography


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