Digital collection presents the life of great Canadian ecologist

University of Victoria online collection launches with 20th century works by Ian McTaggart-Cowan

The Ian McTaggart-Cowan digital collection officially launched at the University of Victoria. A crowd convened in the university’s new Digital Scholarship Commons to witness the launch of the digital collection showcasing McTaggart-Cowan’s field notes, photographs, CBC television programs, 3D images and guided tour of the ecologist’s impactful life and career. Among the speakers were McTaggart-Cowan’s daughter Ann Schau and Briony Penn, author of the scientist’s biography The Real Thing and creator of the guided online tour.

Archivist and director of special collections Lara Wilson said, “It was very rewarding to be able to launch what we would call the fuller digital exhibit … It highlights the role of universities in disseminating knowledge to the greater public.”

Interested viewers, researchers and students can download the materials on the site and incorporate them into relevant work.

McTaggart-Cowan, often referred to as the “father of Canadian ecology,” studied zoology, ecology and natural history during his long and dynamic career. He taught notable students such as C.S. Holling, Charles Krebs and Valerius Geist and, during his time as a television host, influenced young David Suzuki on his own environmental path. After serving as professor and Dean of Graduate Studies at UBC in 1964, McTaggart-Cowan became the University of Victoria’s Chancellor from 1979 to 1984, and went on to write and publish books such as The Birds of British Columbia well into his nineties. He left behind over 70 years of notes, journals, photographs and correspondence when he passed in 2010.

Journalist Briony Penn interviewed the environmental scientist frequently in the years before his passing. An activist and adjunct professor of environmental studies at the University of Victoria, Penn was interested in McTaggart-Cowan’s environmental contributions in British Columbia. After his passing, McTaggart-Cowan’s family offered the responsibility of his biography to Penn, where came the beginnings of The Real Thing: The Natural History of Ian McTaggart-Cowan.

In constructing his biography, Penn studied McTaggart-Cowan’s work extensively, timelining the course of his life and uncovering along the way what she called “the secret society of scientists who, over the century, had an incredible network trying to keep their scientific and conservational lives in government.” The society was the product of budgetary cuts and muzzling to the scientific community. Working together, the scientists aimed to preserve environmental research, as well as respect for the natural world and for the knowledge of Indigenous peoples. April 2017’s March for Science illuminates how longstanding an issue scientific suppression has been.

“In a sense, the scientists felt they had to go underground and talk to the public quietly and through other means. That’s why they went into television and through popular culture,” Penn said.

She added, “In a globalizing world, to love nature, to celebrate local people and to respect local people’s knowledge was not on the forefront of most academia, or societally… [McTaggart-Cowan] really wanted people to have richer lives, and the natural world creates that. A richer, more meaningful life.”

McTaggart-Cowan’s important environmental background was published in The Real Thing in 2015. The recent exhibition at UVic marks the release of all his work to the public in digital form – an accessible collection which, Penn says, will help the next generation of environmental scientists broaden their frame of reference.

“I think I see it as foundational building blocks,” Penn said. “[Students] can see the political origins of scientific suppression and then they can start putting themselves in context. That’s where I think the next generation can arm themselves with historical facts.”

Visit Ian McTaggart-Cowan’s digital collection online at exhibits.library.uvic.ca/spotlight/ian-mctaggart-cowan.