Ian McTaggart Cowan

Chapter 17: Victoria 1935-1936

“I stretched what a museum was all about.”

– Ian McTaggart Cowan

In July of 1935, Cowan received his notice of temporary appointment at the Provincial Museum with a salary of $125/month – to which he had annotated WOW! in red ink. His youthful enthusiasm was spawned by more than professional interest. He was getting closer to a reliable income in order to marry Joyce. He had one year to secure a permanent position and bank $700. This motivation cushioned his entrance into an institution that had accumulated more than dust: rumours about dodgy accounts, a controversial firing of his predecessor, a public exposé of fraudulent specimens, poor science and a general malaise from the lacklustre direction of Francis Kermode, the ill-chosen namesake of the cream-coloured race of the American Black Bear of the central and northern coast of British Columbia.

Cowan was leaving behind “one of the great institutions of the world in terms of systematic collections”, MVZ at Berkeley, and returning to a smaller museum that had become stalled in the era of preserved specimens and artifacts in drawers and glass cases. Until Cowan was hired, the museum had never had a staff member with any formal training in either museology or natural history. Kermode is described as “an embattled dinosaur,” with little to draw an opinion because he kept little documentation. Kermode’s dubious science caught up with him. It wasn’t just that he had messed up on the bear, but ornithologist Major Allan Brooks accused him in the journal Ibis (1923) of taking an imported bird and passing it off as a BC specimen. By 1935 Kermode was three decades into his reign and the blush was long off the museum’s early promise. Funding was barely trickling in during the Depression years, his energies appear to have been on a similar stale trajectory and the youthful Cowan was coming in as assistant curator after a very controversial firing of William (Billy) Newcombe from that position. Cowan was appointed not by Kermode but by George Weir, the new Minister of Education, as one of four bright PhD grads to enliven the province’s flagging institutions. 

Ian McTaggart Cowan and Joyce McTaggart Cowan (1936)

With little choice of work, it’s not hard to imagine Cowan going to extraordinary efforts to get along with Kermode. He was also not alone. Another of his colleagues was W. Kaye Lamb, one of the other PhD grads hand-picked by Weir. Described as one of the most under-celebrated figures of British Columbia’s literary history, Lamb was a competent administrator and a prolific historian, having famously said, “Any country worthy of a future should be interested in its past.” Lamb and Cowan both stayed that year at a Victoria boarding house called Rockabella, close to the Empress Hotel, run by the formidable Mrs. Tuck.

The support one imagines the two men provided one another – out of hearing, back at Rockabella – was on the appropriate course of action with difficult bosses and on how to run prestigious provincial institutions on a shoestring. What Kermode did provide as boss was a relatively free rein for Cowan to do his job. Much of his first year was spent rescuing the poorly-conserved collection and cataloguing the – 1,560 mammals and 5,247 birds. He started a Saturday morning children’s lecture series using specimens and lantern slides. and prepared a special study, Bats of British Columbia, which led to the discovery of bat specimens in the collection that hadn’t been documented in Canada before.  

Ian McTaggart Cowan and and Joyce McTaggart Cowan wedding picture (1936)

He was also free to pursue fieldwork, not only to increase the collection for taxonomic purposes but to do the first provincial park baselines. He persuaded Kermode to allow him two field trips to the lower Fraser Valley and Alta Lake in the fall, “where considerable collecting is done.” Probably, considerable visiting of his fiancée was done too. Accompanied by Joyce and his future father-in-law, he inventoried the islands of the Fraser delta where the massive Pacific flyway migration comes through and large populations of birds overwinter.

Cowan also started his study on the ecology of deer, which met the third objective of the museum – the encouragement of the natural sciences. The deer study was also fulfilling his ongoing fascination with the effects of islands on evolution. In his first year at the museum, he was preparing his doctoral research for publication, and musing on what factors made island deer smaller – teasing out the effects of genetics and environment. Other “island” studies he was pursuing while at the museum included mice distribution on islands and the island-like effect of a place called Rocky Point, the narrowest crossing for migrating birds on the Juan de Fuca Strait.

Ian McTaggart Cowan field notes (1942-1965) : specimen book, no. 1936-4036

Meanwhile, in 1935, he had some other serious work to do: get married and establish his own nesting habitat in Victoria. In the middle of the Depression, the wedding was a modest affair held on a Tuesday night, April 21, 1936, with a small family reception at the Racey home in Vancouver. They postponed a honeymoon until June when the couple would be heading out on a two-month field trip and spent May moving into their new home in Victoria, searching for a museum vehicle (a Dodge humpback panel truck was eventually secured). On June 17 the preparations for their field season–honeymoon were finished. Cowan jots a quick note to Kermode: “PS. You should see the back of our car; it looks like the bargain basement at Spencer’s on the 95 cents day sale!” Their itinerary was some of the most beautiful regions of British Columbia for a long summer of adventure, alone (at last). 

Western Small-footed Myotis specimen : adult female
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