Today, let's meet a famous bird-watcher. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Florence Merriam was born in
upstate New York during the Civil War, on a
well-to-do farm. Her mother was a Rutgers graduate
and an amateur astronomer. Her father was a
She was educated largely at home. Her older
brother, Hart, was bound for medical school. He
taught her anatomy and biology. She developed the
instincts of a naturalist early in life -- walking
the woods, studying birds and animals.
Florence went on to Smith College. Within months
she emerged as a radical environmentalist. Her
cause? It was Victorian ladies' hats. Decorating
hats with bird feathers, and with stuffed birds,
was all the rage in the 1880s. She went to the
ramparts over the slaughter of beautiful birds.
It was a formative cause. It helped her shape an
encyclopedic knowledge of birds, their habits, and
their habitats. She'd written two books on American
birds before she was 27. She went on to write 11
more books and over 100 articles.
This attractive young lady with her steely eyes and
set jaw did not marry -- not yet. She'd chosen a
different and incompatible road, by Victorian
standards. She embarked on a long series of rugged
field work all over the West. By 1900, Who's
Who listed her as a noted author.
Her brother Hart finished medical school the year
she started college. He soon became the first head
of the U.S. Biological Survey. In that role, he
hired a young Minnesota farmer who'd been sending
him bird and animal specimens.
The man was Vernon Bailey. Bailey went on to spend
46 years with the Biological Survey. Most of that
time he was its chief naturalist. He too had an
instinct for the work. Hart respected him. He was a
good friend to Florence. So, just before 1900, he
and Florence married. She was now 37.
Florence's biographer, Harriet Kofalk, gives us a
wonderful photo of the couple thirty years later.
They're both grey-haired, sunburned, lean and fit.
Both wear boots and jodhpurs. They're still in the
field -- still learning. She was now 66 and at the
peak of her career. Her writings tell of field work
... a mental gallery crowded with bird pictures,
with pulses quickened by the stirring northern
days, with mind swept by prairie winds, and with
spirit uplifted ...
Florence Merriam Bailey's story is an
odd one. The feminist message is diluted. She played
out the roles of servant to her older brother and
proper Victorian wife. Yet beneath appearance ran a
juggernaut of purpose and conviction. Those clear
eyes revealed a huge part of our national heritage to
us. And we were hard pressed to see that winged
heritage -- 100 years ago.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds