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Darling, Jay Norwood "Ding"

Published onJul 30, 2021
Darling, Jay Norwood "Ding"

(October 21, 1876 – February 12, 1962)

Quick Facts

Jay Darling was a political cartoonist, conservationist, and wildlife artist best known for creating the Federal Duck Stamp program.


Jay N. "Ding" Darling, 1963 by Orr Cleveland Fisher (American, 1885-1974). Oil on canvas. Gift of Donna L. Howard. In the permanent collection, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. U84.141

Darling was born in Norwood, Michigan. Although his middle name came from his birthplace, he considered himself an Iowan from the time he moved to the state with his parents and brother in 1886. His early days in Sioux City, surrounded by unspoiled prairie and seemingly limitless wildlife, created in Darling a passion to protect nature's bounty. Many years later he wrote, "If I could put together all the virgin landscapes which I knew in my youth, and show what has happened to them in one generation, it would be the best object lesson in conservation that could be printed."

Darling graduated from Beloit College in 1900, a year behind his class. Rumor had it that he had been dismissed because he had drawn comical cartoons of the faculty for the college yearbook. Years later, when his alma mater awarded the famous Darling an honorary doctorate, he set the record straight, saying he had flunked nearly every course that year. Even so, the cartoons he drew were indeed impertinent in the eyes of the straitlaced faculty who appeared in them, so Darling veiled his identity by signing the offending illustrations "Ding," a contraction of his last name. Less than 20 years later "Ding" was a nationally famous cartoonist.

Darling was as bright as he was fun loving. He excelled in biology, the major he pursued in preparation for medical school. A Beloit biology professor also revealed to Darling the interdependence of all living things–a principle that profoundly influenced Darling throughout the remainder of his life.

To save money for medical school, Darling joined the Sioux City Journal as a cub reporter. He may have been given the position because he was experienced with a camera when newspaper photography was in its infancy. He also was a self-trained artist who, from a tender age, had carried a small sketchpad and pencil with him and compulsively drew what he saw. Darling was assigned to cover a newsworthy Sioux City trial and to get a photo of one of the lawyers involved. The cantankerous attorney spotted the reporter and his camera and chased him from the room. Young Darling was able to outrun his subject, but returned to the newspaper office without a photo. He found in his desk a likeness he had earlier sketched of the attorney and showed it to his editor, who ran the drawing with Darling's story. Although neither man could have foreseen it, that experience directed Darling's career path from medicine to political cartooning.

The Journal enjoyed wide circulation, and as Darling's work became more sophisticated, it also attracted the attention of other Iowa publishers. Darling, however, was most interested in working for Gardner Cowles of the Des Moines Register and Leader, who had joined with Harvey Ingham to try to breathe life into the failing Register and Leader. Darling joined the Des Moines papers in 1906. As his work became even more widely appreciated, major daily newspapers made him offers. In 1911 he joined the New York Globe.

Except for the lifelong relationships he established with movers and shakers of the early 20th century, the New York interlude was unhappy for Darling. Editors at the Globe, unlike those at the Register and Leader, urged Darling to create political cartoons consistent with the newspaper's editorial views. When, following extended negotiations, he agreed to return to the Register and Leader in 1913, he wrote, "The people of Iowa think more to the square inch than the people of New York think to the square mile." In 1916 the New York Herald Tribune offered to syndicate Darling's cartoons. Because the Register and Leader then had no such syndicate, Darling accepted the offer on the condition that he would spend only limited time in New York. Thus Darling remained an Iowan and a mainstay at the Register and Leader as he also benefited from a national following. He won the first of his two Pulitzer Prizes in 1924, and by the mid 1930s "Ding" was recognized by his peers as the most influential political cartoonist in the nation.

Darling (upper right on camel) touring the pyramids at Giza, Egypt.

With his financial condition and national reputation secure, Darling devoted his attention to a wide range of interests and commenced a second career devoted to the conservation of natural resources. He helped organize the Iowa division of the Izaak Walton League. In 1931 he was appointed to the Iowa State Fish and Game Commission. The following year, in an effort to provide more scientifically trained conservationists, Darling proposed a cooperative arrangement including Iowa State College (now Iowa State University), the Fish and Game Commission, and himself to launch the nation's first Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit at Iowa State. Darling personally pledged $3,000 per year for three years in the depth of the Great Depression to give life to his successful experiment.

Darling also took up etching as a hobby and became an acknowledged expert. Today, his etchings are prized by collectors of wildlife art.

Early in 1934 President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Darling and Aldo Leopold, along with Tom Beck, editor of Collier's magazine, to what became known as the Beck Committee to study dwindling waterfowl numbers and how to restore them. The committee's report was scathing in its criticism of the U.S. Bureau of Biological Survey (forerunner of the Fish and Wildlife Service).

Later in 1934, when Darling (a Republican) accepted President Roosevelt's appointment as chief of the Biological Survey, he extended the Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit concept nationwide. He also came down hard on game hogs, hired devoted conservationists, greatly expanded the National Wildlife Refuge system, pushed legislation approving the "Duck Stamp," and designed the first stamp in the series. The continuing Duck Stamp program has funded the purchase of more than five million acres of fragile waterfowl habitat at an inflation-adjusted cost of nearly $2 billion.

When he resigned as chief of the Biological Survey in 1935, Darling returned to Des Moines with plans to consolidate the political influence of the many organizations supporting conservation. His efforts resulted in the founding of the National Wildlife Federation, the largest and most successful organization of its kind, and he served as president during the first three years of its existence.

Edgar Harlan (left) and Jay N. “Ding” Darling (right)

Darling won a second Pulitzer Prize for political cartooning in 1942. Shortly thereafter, he received the prestigious (Theodore) Roosevelt Medal, one of many honors recognizing his achievements in conservation.

Following Darling's death in 1962, friends, family members, and public figures created the J. N. "Ding" Darling Foundation to extend Darling's conservation values. The foundation has focused its resources on conservation education and the protection of natural resources. The expansion and protection of the nation's wildlife refuge system constitute one of Darling's most important legacies. The refuge on Sanibel Island, Florida, where Darling wintered for many years, was named for him in 1967. The J. N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge, whose land Darling fought to protect from developers, attracts more than 800,000 visitors each year.

Selections of text republished with permission from the Iowa Biographical Dictionary, edited by David Hudson, Marvin Bergman, and Loren Horton. Published by the University of Iowa Press, Iowa City, IA. Online publication, 2009.

Selected Sources

Darling's correspondence and other papers, including a large collection of his original cartoons, are in Special Collections, University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City.

The University Museums at Iowa State University, Ames, holds a complete collection of his wildlife etchings and printing plates.

Other items, including a more expansive collection of proofs of Darling's original cartoons, are housed in the Cowles Library at Drake University, Des Moines.

David L. Lendt, Ding: The Life of Jay Norwood Darling (2001).

Worthen, Amy N. The Prints of J.N. Darling, 3rd edition (2014). University Museums, Iowa State University (Ames, IA).

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