British Columbia

Ian McTaggart-Cowan bio shines light on pioneering TV nature program host

Zoologist Ian McTaggart-Cowan founded and headed the first university-based wildlife department in Canada, and produced ground-breaking television nature programs in the 1950s and 1960s which were aired around the world.

In many ways, Ian McTaggart-Cowan was the forerunner to TV educators like David Suzuki, David Attenborough

Cowan as a young professor at UBC. (University of Victoria Special Collections)

He has been called the father of Canadian ecology, yet these days, many people don't know his name.

Zoologist Ian McTaggart-Cowan founded and headed the first university-based wildlife department in Canada, and produced ground-breaking television nature programs in the 1950s and 1960s, which were aired around the world.

By the time of his death at age 99 in 2010, he had largely been forgotten. But if a new book is successful, McTaggart-Cowan will, again, become a household name.

McTaggart-Cowan was also chancellor of UVic. (UVic Archives)

The new biography was written by Briony Penn, an environmental activist and adjunct University of Victoria professor.

Penn said she first met McTaggart-Cowan when he was 90, and she was surprised by his relative obscurity when she began researching his achievements.

"I was just gobsmacked. Someone who'd been a household name in the 50s hasn't been celebrated," said Penn, whose book The Real Thing: The Natural History of Ian McTaggart-Cowan was released Oct. 15.

CBC nature programs

McTaggart-Cowan was a popular zoology professor at the University of British Columbia, and was the dean of the graduate studies department when he retired in 1975.

It was while working as a professor in 1955 that he made his foray into television by hosting Fur and Feathers, a show for CBC Television in which he taught children about animals.

In later years, he hosted another documentary series for CBC called The Living Seas, as well as The Web of Life, an 11-part series that aired in 1963. Both programs went on to air in other countries.

"He had this wonderful sort of ability to entertain people and enthuse them," said Penn.

"His lecture halls at UBC were just packed full of people, overflowing. Likewise in the clips that you can see of the CBC shows, it was just his desire to educate people and to get them to take on that same kind of enthusiasm, because he felt implicitly that the natural world was good for people, it helped them [and] it meant that they would be good stewards.

"That's what motivated him his whole life."

Penn said that McTaggart-Cowan put all his efforts into helping conserve the natural world.

He sat on whaling commissions to help bring about the moratorium on whaling, compiled massive records on birds, and inspired many others to pursue careers in biology and wildlife management and conservation.

He was also heavily involved in organizations such as the National Research Council of Canada, and the Environmental Council of Canada.

"He just loved the natural world. He loved British Columbia, he loved being outside, he loved enthusing people with how beautiful it is," said Penn. "I think every Canadian should know about him, because he's the kind of person we can really feel proud of."

To hear the full interview listen to the audio labelled: New biography of Canadian conservation leader, pioneering TV nature program host


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