Ecologist’s archive offers a glimpse of B.C. wilderness

A lifetime of material compiled by Ian McTaggart Cowan — known as the “father of Canadian ecology” — has found a home at the University of Victoria.

McTaggart Cowan, who died in 2010 at the age of 99, came to Canada from Scotland with his family at age three and grew up in North Vancouver. He was UVic’s chancellor from 1979 to 1984, taught for 35 years at the University of B.C. and worked at what is now the Royal B.C. Museum.

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His illustrious, 75-year career included being a television host on CBC, during which time he had a part in hiring a young David Suzuki to follow in his footsteps.

McTaggart Cowan’s trove of items at UVic includes field notebooks, lecture notes, photographs, books and footage from his CBC nature programs in the 1950s and ’60s. UVic has already done extensive work on digitizing the notebooks.

“We have other collections of environmental science materials here, and this is a tremendous addition because of how renowned Dr. McTaggart Cowan was,” said Lara Wilson, UVic’s archivist and director of special collections.

“We often think of archives as having literary and cultural material, but it also has scientific material.”

The collection will be a boon to research “because we can compare information from today around populations of animals to where they were [years ago],” Wilson said.

“This is part of the documentary heritage of British Columbia around our environment.”

She noted that the public can access the UVic archives.

Wilson said McTaggart Cowan studied some of the same things that still concern researchers today, such as the effect of pollution and hunting on the environment. “

He was a pioneer,” she said.

Writer and environmentalist Briony Penn, who has written a biography of McTaggart Cowan, said he was ahead of his time.

“He was talking about climate change in 1975, he was talking about pesticides in 1946.”

Penn’s book, The Real Thing, will be released in September.

McTaggart Cowan did research on many subjects, Wilson said, but the study of birds was his “initial love.”

His Birds of British Columbia is one of his best-known works, though mountain sheep and rodents were also prime areas of interest.

In 2005, a $750,000 donation from the provincial government helped establish the Dr. Ian McTaggart Cowan professorship in biodiversity conservation and ecological restoration at UVic. On his 97th birthday in 2007, 97 trees were planted in his honour at the Swan Lake Christmas Hill Nature Sanctuary, a site which he had a hand in creating as a director of the Nature Trust of B.C.

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