Ian McTaggart Cowan Field Journals

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Two images from the Cowan collectionIan McTaggart Cowan (1910–2010) is often referred to as the “father of Canadian ecology.” From his formative years roaming the mountains around Vancouver collecting museum specimens of mammals and birds to his last years as a major contributor to the voluminous and authoritative Birds of British Columbia (which the Royal BC Museum called "one of the biggest publishing events in Canadian history") Cowan’s life provides a unique perspective on a century of environmental change—with a critical message for the future.

As the head and founder of the first university wildlife department in Canada, Ian McTaggart Cowan revolutionized the way North Americans understood the natural world. Students flocked into his classrooms to hear his brilliant, entertaining lectures regarding the new science of ecology. During his academic career Ian McTaggart Cowan stepped outside the narrow confines of academia to pioneer nature television. His television programs in the 1950s and ’60s, Fur and Feathers, The Web of Life and The Living Sea, made him a household name around the world whether capturing the first microscopic organisms on TV or bringing a live moose into the studio. He was also responsible for hiring a young David Suzuki, who followed in his nature-show-host footsteps.

Cowan’s early work in the national parks became the foundation for wildlife conservation and environmental education in Canada. And like his US counterpart and colleague Aldo Leopold, he was part of a secret fraternity that practised a reverence for wildness and influenced three generations of scientists and politicians on everything from conservation of endangered species to the dangers of pesticides and climate change, long before these topics were generally acknowledged.

The Cowan Collection at the University of Victoria Special Collections includes Cowan’s field journals, photographs, CBC footage and correspondence from his 75-year long multi-faceted career, alternating between high-profile campaigns, such as ending the Canadian bounty system, and cutting-edge field research into species and ecosystems from the Arctic to Haida Gwaii. It also includes journal from his mentors like Kenneth Racey and students like Bristol Foster. The University of Victoria Libraries will host a digital collection of the handwritten McTaggart Cowan field journals, with selected journals also transcribed.  The Ian McTaggart Cowan field journals were the primary source used to create the official biography, The Real Thing: The Natural History of Ian McTaggart Cowan.

Collection Access Note: The loading of all 61 volumes of the online McTaggart Cowan field journal collection is a work in progress. Selected field journals have been transcribed. The transcribed field journals can be keyword searched, with the transcribed pages presented beside the corresponding handwritten pages.