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Biography celebrates a forgotten titan of Canadian zoology

Briony Penn’s new book The Real Thing: The Natural History of Ian McTaggart-Cowan explores the life of great Canadian naturalist Ian McTaggart-Cowan.

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Ian McTaggart-Cowan's name is not widely recognized, even if the Cowan Vertebrate Museum at the University of British Columbia is named after him.

He was one of the most influential figures in the conservation movement in Canada when he retired as a zoology professor in 1975, but by the time of his death, at age 99 in 2010, he had been largely forgotten.

If you stopped 100 people on the streets of Vancouver today and asked about Dr. McTaggart-Cowan, it is likely nobody would know who he was, says Briony Penn, who hopes her new book will change all that.

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The Real Thing: The Natural History of Ian McTaggart-Cowan, explores the life of a remarkable man who might be called the most important conservationist you never heard of.

"Aldo Leopold became a household name in the States, and Cowan was relegated to obscurity. It's kind of the quintessential Canadian story," said Ms. Penn, an environmental activist, writer and adjunct professor at the University of Victoria. "Peter Scott and David Attenborough [whose natural history television shows he directly inspired] became knighted and worldwide names, and Cowan was forgotten."

Dr. McTaggart-Cowan did scientific research and founded the first university-based wildlife department in Canada. But perhaps his most significant contribution was through his popular television shows, which influenced the way people think about the natural world.

Through the 1950s, he produced Web of Life, a CBC series that looked at nature through the lens of a scientist. It was groundbreaking stuff.

Ms. Penn said Dr. McTaggart-Cowan hired a young David Suzuki, who later went on to have his own phenomenal impact through television.

Web of Life was the forerunner not only to The Nature of Things, she said, but also to natural history shows on the British Broadcasting Corp., including such blockbusters as Planet Earth and Frozen Planet.

"The interesting thing with Cowan was he did a sabbatical in the U.K. in 1952-53, and he was meeting with people like Sir Peter Scott, who wasn't a 'sir' at that time, who later became the forerunner to [Sir] David Attenborough," she said. "Cowan was the inspiration for the BBC [nature programming]."

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Sir Peter's popular natural history series Look ran on the BBC from 1955 to 1981, preceding Sir David's 1979 series Life on Earth, and The Living Planet, first broadcast in 1984.

Ms. Penn said that although Dr. McTaggart-Cowan's early nature television was influential, its importance was not recognized at the time by the CBC. The series was sold internationally, but it was produced on a shoe string (he was paid $300 a month) and the concept was not developed.

"The CBC was so stupid they didn't even recognize what they'd got. The BBC very quickly set up their natural history unit, people like Attenborough got involved and they took over the whole genre of natural history television," Ms. Penn said. "I think politics got in the way [in Canada]. … We just really weren't interested in what we had, and we didn't understand the power and impact of what he was doing."

During her book research, Ms. Penn made a discovery that stunned her. She found records that showed in 1925, a group of naturalists and scientists formed a secret group known as The Brotherhood to discuss how to educate the public and promote nature conservation. At the time, the Canadian government was suppressing scientific research into the decline of buffalo herds in the Prairies, and in the United States, industry groups were lobbying to dismantle the national park system president Theodore Roosevelt established between 1901 and 1909.

The Brotherhood, which included Dr. McTaggart-Cowan and Mr. Leopold, would meet annually, usually slipping away from big science conferences to have discussions in private. Each year, one of the members would present a paper at the gathering. The essays that Mr. Leopold wrote for those meetings were published (in 1949, the year after he died) under the title A Sand County Almanac.

"They were an incredible group of people – and it was never written about. They were a secret brotherhood and Cowan left all their essays," Ms. Penn said. "When I found them, I just couldn't believe it, because if anyone does know about Aldo Leopold and has read A Sand County Almanac, they understand its role in [shaping] American consciousness of ecology."

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Ms. Penn's book is not going to have the kind of impact that Mr. Leopold's collection of essays did, but it may rekindle interest in a great naturalist who has largely been forgotten.

The biography, published by Rocky Mountain Books, is to be launched at the Beaty Biodiversity Museum at UBC on Nov. 7.

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