Joseph Sefton Jr. was a notable San Diego banker, philanthropist, and amateur naturalist and ornithologist. In 1922, Sefton joined the Society of Natural History and throughout his years as a member, he served as president and as a member of the board. He also made very significant contributions to our research collection that represent part of the ecological history of our region. With more than 25 years of service to the Society of Natural History, which became the San Diego Natural History Museum, Sefton’s impact can be seen throughout the Museum today.
Sefton was born September 4, 1881 in Dayton, Ohio to Joseph Weller Sefton and Harriet Lyle Hollida. He had an older sister named Lena Hollida Sefton. The family moved to San Diego where Joseph Sr. became renowned for the establishment of the San Diego Savings Bank in 1889, which was later renamed San Diego Trust & Savings.
The Sefton family had a tradition of appreciation for and curiosity about natural history. For example, Joseph Sr. had his own collection of live birds kept in an aviary, which was given to the city after his death in 1908, ultimately becoming the foundation of the San Diego Zoo’s collection.
Joseph Jr. studied at Stanford University and graduated in the class of 1905. Notably, he played college football and participated in the first Rose Bowl of 1902 against University of Michigan (Stanford losing 49-0). After college, Sefton worked at his father’s bank and became vice president in 1909 after his father’s death. In 1935, Sefton became the president of the bank and held a position on the board until 1960.
In April 1909, Sefton married Helen Walcott Thomas (1888-1971), noted as the third woman to fly in an airplane and a descendant of Oliver Walcott, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. The couple adopted a son in 1917 named Thomas Walcott Sefton. The marriage ended in divorce and in May 1933, Sefton married film actress Minna Gombell. They were married for 21 years until their divorce in 1954.
Sefton passed away in January 1966 at age 84 and was buried in the Sefton family plot in Greenwood Memorial Park, San Diego.
The Museum’s Birds and Mammals Collection contains close to 1,000 bird specimens as well as nearly 200 mammal specimens from the greater San Diego and Baja California region that were collected by the Sefton family.
The Museum boasts one of the purest examples of a Yellow-shafted Flicker. Due to the hybridization of the Flicker subspecies, it is hard to identify the Yellow-shafted Flicker (Colaptes auratus luteus) from the Red-shafted Flicker (C. a. cafer) without a specimen. In February 1954, Sefton collected the Yellow-shafted Flicker specimen after it flew into his window at his Point Loma home.
Another example comes from off the coast of Los Angeles. San Clemente Island had been home to a subspecies of Bewick’s Wren (Thryomanes bewickii leucophrys). After the introduction of domestic goats, an invasive species that was released and became feral, these animals grazed down all of the natural flora on the island and disrupted the natural ecology. Because of this introduction, the Bewick’s Wren endemic subspecies went extinct sometime between 1941 and 1968. Although these birds are now extinct, the Museum possesses research specimens collected by Sefton in December 1925.
Another one of the rare species of birds he collected was a Rusty Blackbird (Euphagus carolinus) from Monte Vista Ranch in November 1925. This species nests in Canada and migrates in the winter to southeastern United States. Rarely found in California, the specimen Sefton collected was only the third reported in California and one of only six ever found in San Diego County.
Sefton joined the San Diego Society of Natural History in 1922. He served as president of the San Diego Natural History Society and Museum for 29 years, from 1922 to 1951.
Sefton established the focus of the Museum that he stated was “the study, collection, preparation, and exhibition of the flora, fauna, and geology.” He emphasized the study of the local San Diego region rather than a broader study of natural history; this focus on the regional southern California/Baja California area continues to this day. Additionally, under Sefton’s leadership the building the Museum currently occupies was approved, built, and opened to the public. He served as president of the board during both World Wars, including when the Museum building was used as a wartime hospital during World War II, and when it reopened in 1949.
The J.W. Sefton Foundation was established in 1945 and would be responsible for several philanthropic donations in San Diego, especially at the San Diego Natural History Museum. In particular, in 1948 the foundation purchased a U.S. Coast Guard icebreaking vessel and converted it into a research vessel for oceanography research. Donated to the Museum and renamed Orca, the vessel explored the Channel Islands and the coasts of Baja California. Additionally, the Foundation funded the creation of the Hall of Ecology in the Museum with donations that were made beginning in 1971. The Sefton family was also responsible for the installation of the Foucault pendulum, which was sponsored by the San Diego Savings & Trust Bank and dedicated to Joseph Sefton. Jr. in 1957. This pendulum is still a point of interest to Museum visitors today.
With years of service to the San Diego Natural History Museum, Joseph Sefton Jr. left a long legacy of leadership and philanthropy.
Inspired by Nature; The San Diego Natural History Museum after 125 Years, by Iris Engstrand and Anne Bullard (San Diego Natural History Museum, 1999).
“A City, A Bank, A Family” by Theodore Davie and edited by Thomas L. Scharf, The Journal of San Diego History (San Diego Historical Society Quarterly: Spring 1989, Volume 35, Number 2)
Unitt, Philip. Personal Communication. Curator of Birds and Mammals, San Diego Natural History Museum. 2015.