Introduction: The Real Thing: the Natural History of Ian McTaggart Cowan


All my life I have tried to explain to colleagues, family, students – anyone who will listen to me – the beautiful, fascinating things that I see! It is not all sweetness and light but this world is absolutely fascinating

– Ian McTaggart Cowan, interview, February 2, 2005.


In the opening pages of his 1956 field guide The Mammals of British Columbia, Ian McTaggart Cowan encouraged us – his readers – to join him in “unravelling the innermost secrets of the lives of mammals.” The following essays are a continuing invitation to reveal not only the innermost secrets of the lives of mammals, birds, amphibians and reptiles, but of the man himself and the lives of his gentle and radical cohort of naturalists who shaped British Columbia in profound ways. 

Ian McTaggart Cowan had been described as “the father of wildlife conservation and ecology”, “one of the world’s leading mammalogists and ornithologists”, “the ultimate Renaissance man” and “Canada’s pioneer of natural history television programming”. He was an academic who had received more distinctions than any other Canadian scientist (including Officer of the Order of Canada and Order of British Columbia). He was the namesake of half a dozen professorships and scholarships, and a trusted mentor for at least three generations of students, colleagues, activists and policy-makers. 


Guided Tour with Briony Penn
Chapter 1: Edinburgh 1910-1913