The Real Thing: The Natural History of Ian McTaggart Cowan

  • The Real Thing: The Natural History of Ian McTaggart Cowan
    by Briony Penn
  • Ian McTaggart-Cowan: The Legacy of a Pioneering Biologist, Educator and Conservationist
    by Ronald D. Jakimchuk, R. Wayne Campbell, and Dennis A. Demarchi

Reviewed by Jennifer Bonnell

Ian McTaggart Cowan (1910-2010) was a BC scientist, conservationist, and educator whose influence extended to over 300 authored and co-authored publications on a wide range of animal species, and the supervision of over ninety graduate students, many of whom went on to hold leadership positions in academic science and government wildlife management. From his early years as a collecting biologist for the Royal BC Museum to his years as professor and later head of the Zoology program at UBC, and the popularity of his wildlife television series in the 1950s and 1960s, Cowan shaped the profession of wildlife ecology and the development of conservationist thought in the country’s most biodiverse province.

Two books, both published in 2015, pay tribute to the tremendous reach of this man and the rich life of family, friends, and colleagues he cultivated in Vancouver and later Victoria. Ronald D. Jakimchuk, R. Wayne Campbell, and Dennis A. Demarchi’s Ian McTaggart-Cowan: The Legacy of a Pioneering Biologist, Educator and Conservationist is a celebration of Cowan and the “golden age” of conservation biology that he helped to usher in. Richly illustrated with over 300 images documenting Cowan’s life and the animal species he studied over time, the collection is divided into three parts: 1) Life and Career, a biographical overview of Cowan’s experiences and contributions; 2) Memories, a compendium of recollections from Cowan’s former students and colleagues; and 3) Legacy, a catalogue of Cowan’s awards, publications, and, especially valuable, the student theses and dissertations he supervised over his lifetime, each accompanied by a summary of its principal findings. A series of attractive maps further documents the breadth of Cowan’s legacy, illustrating the locations and animal species upon which Cowan and his students focused their field research over time.

Briony Penn’s The Real Thing: The Natural History of Ian McTaggart Cowan is as much a  biography of Cowan as a tribute to the BC landscapes and animal species he was fascinated by, many of them since lost to a century of destructive development. This detailed and highly engaging exploration of Cowan’s life, and the places and species that shaped his career and his thinking as a scientist, captures the wonder that Cowan felt for the natural world and the “insatiable appetite” for local knowledge (80) that he held throughout his life. For Cowan, the act of collecting and describing animal specimens produced crystallized recollections of particular places and experiences, and Penn uses this principle of “collecting as biography” to frame her work. Images from Cowan’s extensive specimen collections appear in sidebars throughout the book, evoking the marginalia of Cowan’s field journals. Similarly, a Table of Species (rather than a list of dissertations) appears in the Appendix as a legacy not so much of Cowan’s influence but of the declining biodiversity of the province over his lifetime.

Both books follow similar signposts in highlighting key events in Cowan’s life, but their purpose and format diverge considerably. Jakimchuk et al.’s Ian McTaggart Cowan, intended as a centenary birthday gift with contributions from family, friends, and colleagues (sadly, McTaggart-Cowan died two months short of his 100th birthday), presents a skilfully assembled compilation of biographical documents, reminiscences, and anecdotes celebrating Cowan’s life and influence. Biographical narrative from the authors is punctuated with at times lengthy excerpts from Cowan’s field journals, publications, and his many speeches; the transcript of a talk Cowan gave to the BC Wildlife Federation in May 1969, for example, spans nine pages (64-75).

Penn’s narrative is, in contrast, more detailed and more probing in its interpretation. Where Jakimchuk et al. collate the recollections of others, Penn adds Cowan’s own reflections upon his life, captured over five years of personal interviews. In exploring Cowan’s “Natural History” Penn has two meanings in mind: Cowan’s work -- the legacy of his research and contributions to our understanding of British Columbia’s natural history; and, more playfully, a “natural history” of the man himself, that is to say a correlation between key moments in his life with the animal species and places that captivated him (and defined him) in those periods. Commenting on the significance of Vaseux Lake in the south Okanagan region to the Cowans, who returned to the area “all their married lives,” for example, Penn used the relationship between Vaseux Lake and the disturbance-averse Canyon Wrens that returned to nest there each year to illustrate the strength and resilience that Cowan’s wife Joyce provided over their 66-year marriage (217).

Both books attribute Cowan’s influence, and his success, to a combination of his training as a scientist and his early experience as a self-taught hunter and naturalist. For Penn, this hybrid quality in Cowan is significant enough to form the title of her book: Cowan was valued by his mentors and peers as “the real thing”: not simply a “made-in-college” biologist (114) but “one of the best shots in BC” (104), a standing that garnered him respect from trappers in the remote BC interior as well as the leading scientists of his generation. In this, he owed much to his mentor, H.M. Laing, the subject of Richard Mackie’s Hunter-Naturalist. Penn carefully documents the shift in Cowan’s thinking and practice from “collecting naturalist” to conservation-minded scientist, and it is here that her contribution to the existing literature on the history of wildlife management and conservationist thought in Canada really stands out. She shows how Cowan, drawn to hunt to meet the subsistence needs of his family in 1910s Vancouver, was neither the elite imperial hunter of Greg Gillespie’s Hunting for Empire nor, in his later years, the technocratic wildlife manager of Tina Loo’s States of Nature. Instead, his deep and intimate understanding of BC environments and the species they supported, and the strong conservationist values he upheld throughout his life, mark him as something quite different. By taking up Cowan and his life’s work, Penn provides new insights into this important period of transition in ecological knowledge and practice between the early-twentieth-century collector-naturalists and the state-employed wildlife managers who would come to dominate the post-war period.

Cowan’s skill as a “legendary” networker over time and space (Penn, 104) also emerges in both books as a factor of his success. Penn in particular, to borrow one of her ecological metaphors, achieves a convincing biography of the man and his ecosystem: the colleagues and conditions that nurtured his success. Her work provides considerable insight into the values, philosophies, and contributions of Cowan’s fellow scientists and naturalists, many of them lesser-known names in Canada and British Columbia but who made considerable contributions to ecological knowledge in the province. The significance of Cowan’s network is especially apparent in her examination of decades of secret correspondence between Cowan and members of “the B” (Brotherhood of Venery), an underground network of conservation-minded professionals in Canada and the US who supported each other through changing political regimes. These largely (but not exclusively) male scientists and naturalists were among Cowan’s closest professional confidantes, and included such giants in the field as US conservationist Aldo Leopold and Canadian parks commissioner J.B. Harkin.

Both books provide fascinating glimpses not only into Cowan’s life, but into the province’s changing environments over the twentieth century and the growth of professional wildlife science in the same period. While Jakimchuk et al.’s compilation will be cherished as both a keepsake by those closest to Cowan and an important source book on the early years of wildlife ecology, Penn’s elegantly written and insightful biography will engage a wide range of readers, from BC naturalists and wildlife professionals to students of biology, environmental studies, and the history of science.


Gillespie, Greg. 2008. Hunting for Empire: Narratives of Sport in Rupert’s Land, 1840-70. Vancouver: UBC Press.
Loo, Tina. 2007. States of Nature: Conserving Canada’s Wildlife in the Twentieth Century. Vancouver: UBC Press.
Mackie, Richard. 1985. Hamilton Mack Laing: Hunter-Naturalist. Victoria: Sono Nis Press.

The Real Thing: The Natural History of Ian McTaggart Cowan
Briony Penn
Victoria: Rocky Mountain Books, 2015. 558 pp. $30 paper

Ian McTaggart-Cowan: The Legacy of a Pioneering Biologist, Educator and Conservationist.
Ronald D. Jakimchuk, R. Wayne Campbell, and Dennis A. Demarchi
Madeira Park: Harbour Publishing, 2015. 416 pp. $49.95 cloth

BC Studies no. 191 Autumn 2016