Quakers in the World

Quakers in the World

Quaker Ornithologists

The interest of 18th and 19th Century Quakers in observing the natural world led to a flourishing of Quaker scientists, particularly in the fields of botany, meteorology and astronomy – as well as a small but influential group of ornithologists.

John Kirk Townsend (1809 –1851) , the brother of entomologist, Mary Townsend, was an American ornithologist. He was educated at the Friends' Boarding School at Westtown, Pennsylvania, a school that, like Bootham in York, had a reputation for encouraging science. He trained as a physician and pharmacist before developing an interest in natural history. In 1833, as part of on an expedition across the Rockies to the Pacific, Townsend collected several new species of bird and mammals, including the mountain plover, Vaux's swift, chestnut-collared longspur, black-throated gray warbler, Townsend's warbler and sage thrasher, and the Douglas squirrel. He worked with Native Americans to collect specimens and later recorded cultural practices he had observed. Very much less to his credit, he was also guilty of robbing their graves to collect skulls.

John Cassin (1813 – 1869) was a Quaker businessman from Philadelphia who he served, unpaid, as the curator of Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences from 1842. His Birds of California described 50 species not included by John Audubon. He wrote or contributed to many other books on ornithology, and several species of birds from western North America are named for him. His espousing of Quaker ideals of equality is reflected in his mentoring of his pupil Graceanna Lewis, something unusual for the period. Cassin died in 1869 from arsenic poisoning resulting from the handling of preserved bird skins.

Graceanna Lewis (1821-1912) was born into a Quaker family who were fiercely abolitionist. Their home provided one of the stations on the ‘Underground Railroad,’ helping runaway slaves to escape. Lewis provided clothing so that the escapees’ distinctive red and white striped garments would not give them away, and once talked their pursuers out of searching her bedroom on the grounds that they would invade her feminine privacy. She berated Friends who were not actively involved in the abolitionist movement, saying, "the horrors of the southern prison house stand glaring in the light of noon-day sun ...  <while> ... the advocates of Immediate Emancipation go unassisted."

She first became interested in natural history through her friend, Mary Townsend, and hoped to produce a companion piece to Townsend’s children’s book on entomology. Lewis was Cassin’s pupil at the Academy of Natural Sciences from 1862 until he died. Encouraged by Cassin, Lewis studied the extensive collections housed at the academy, discovering several new species of bird. She published the first part of what was intended to be a ten volume Natural History of Birds in 1868. However, after Cassin’s death, she did not complete the work.

Henry Seebohm (1832-59) was a British steel manufacturer and ornithologist from Sheffield. He made expeditions to the Siberian tundra, described in two books, Siberia in Europe and Siberia in Asia, and wrote a number of other books. As well as identifying new species, he established where birds such as Bewick's Swan which spend the winter in Britain, went during the spring. His collection of 17000 specimens of bird skins was bequeathed to the British Museum.

The Quaker peace activist, Horace Alexander (1889-1989) was a keen ornithologist. He was a founder member, in 1929, of the West Midland Bird Club (then the Birmingham Bird Club), During his time in India, he made birdwatching expeditions to the Naga Hills, and for a time a species of bush warbler was named after him. In 1950, he helped found the Delhi Birdwatching Society, and was influential in the setting up the Sultanpur Bird Sanctuary near Delhi. “A good hobby, provided you don't shoot them," Gandhi is said to have told him.

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