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Illuminated 13th century manuscript, The Art of Falconry by early amateur naturalist Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor.
Illuminated 13th century manuscript, The Art of Falconry by early amateur naturalist Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor.

Inspiring Interest in Natural History through Popular Literature

Selection (pg 70) from Bailey's Birds through an Opera Glass (1889)
Selection (pg 70) from Bailey's Birds through an Opera Glass (1889)

"Popular" books, including children's books, memoirs, essays, and short stories are important in rousing concern and interest in our natural world, in addition to providing entertainment. The professional writers who authored these books were careful observers of the natural world and translated this knowledge into memorable prose. Many of these books are particularly influential with young readers and served as inspirational stepping stones to professional careers in science.

Bird watching is a popular and accessible hobby for many young people, now and in the past. Early examples of young adult hobby books written by professional writers include Birds in the Bush (1885) by Bradford Torrey (1843-1912) and Sylvan Secrets in Bird Songs and Books (1887) by Maurice Thompson. Prior to the widespread use of binoculars Birds through an Opera Glass (1889) by Florence Bailey advocated the use of opera glasses to better see birds. All three of these children's books are quaint, beautifully written, and designed to encourage young naturalists in the study of ornithology.

Front cover of Kipling's The Jungle Book (1894).
Front cover of Kipling's The Jungle Book (1894).

Mammals are frequently depicted in works of fiction. Perhaps some of the most famous mammalian characters were created by Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936), the Victorian author and poet. Born in India during the English imperial times, he was awarded the first Nobel Prize for literature for his wonderful depictions of life in India. Kim (1901) and The Jungle Book (1894), are full of short stories of assorted animals and have gone into many editions and are still popular today.

Ernest Thompson Seton.
Ernest Thompson Seton.
Courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

Writer, artist and naturalist, Ernest Thompson Seton (1860-1946), is recognized as one of the founders of animal fiction writing. His more prominent works, written for children and adults, include Wild Animals I Have Known (1898), The Arctic Prairies: A Canoe-Journey of 2,000 miles in Search of the Caribou; being an Account of a Voyage to the Region North of Aylmer Lake (1911) and Lives of Game Animals; an Account of Those Land Animals in American… (1937). The Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology, National Museum of American History, holds one of his autographed manuscripts.

Frontpiece illustration from Burgess's Old Mother West Wind (1910).
Frontpiece illustration from Burgess's Old Mother West Wind (1910).

Thornton Waldo Burgess (1874-1965), wrote many children's books that introduced young readers to memorable mammals. His first book, Old Mother West Wind (with her merry little breezes!), published in 1910, includes the familiar Peter Rabbit, as well as other warm blooded creatures such as Little Joe Otter and Bobby Raccoon. Burgess was an avid conservationist and supported many wildlife protection efforts. His former house is now the Laughing Brook Wildlife Sanctuary, part of the Massachusetts Audubon Society.

Charles J. Maynard (1845-1929), a former taxidermist and professional collector, began self-publishing the popular serial Records of Walks and Talks with Nature (1908 to 1921). The weekly publication listed birds sighted (and the people who sighted them) on public walks he gave around his hometown of Newton, Massachusetts. Our Own Birds: or, A Familiar Natural History of the Birds of the United States (1869) by William L. Baily, talks about birds in our home towns. Several writers were known for their rambling prose on observations of nature. Amateur bird watcher, and author of the famous book Walden Pond, Henry David Thoreau, wrote Notes on New England Birds (1910).

Adventure-themed natural history publications transported armchair naturalists into the wild. In the course of describing exciting or harrowing situations while in the field, authors of this genre also educated their readers about the wildlife found during their work.

Teddy Roosevelt and son Kermit with African buffalo.
Teddy Roosevelt and son Kermit with African buffalo.
Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Archives.

President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) was a meticulous self-taught naturalist and a hunter. Having achieved position and wealth, he could afford to host large expeditions and employ scientists. After his presidential term Roosevelt co-sponsored collecting expeditions to Africa, Asia, and South America with several museums including the American Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian Institution. His memoirs of these experiences, Through the Brazilian Wilderness (1914), African Game Trails (1910), and Trailing the Giant Panda (1929) were popular among laymen and scientists. Many Roosevelt specimens can be found in the NMNH scientific collections.

Edward James "Jim" Corbett (1875-1955), served as a colonel in the British Indian Army and worked for the Bengal and North Western Railway. Corbett became famous as a hunter of man-eating tigers and leopards, though he became a staunch conservationist later in life. His vivid photography is evident in Man-Eaters of Kumaon (1946) and other works, such as My India (1952), written about the Indian regions where he lived and worked. Jungle Lore (1953) is considered to be autobiographical. The Corbett National Park in Kumaon is named after him.

Frontcover of Grey's Tales of Swordfish and Tuna (1927).
Frontcover of Grey's Tales of Swordfish and Tuna (1927).

Pearl Zane Grey (1872-1939), known as Zane Grey, was a professional dentist and novelist known for his stories of the Wild West. Grey loved broadbill sword fishing (sailfish, swordfish, and marlin) and George O. Shield, publisher of Esquire, suggested that Grey publish his angling articles in Field and Stream, the official periodical of the Camp Fire Club in the Florida Keys. Grey helped to form the Isaak Walton League, a non-profit organization dedicated to environmental preservation, and wrote several non-fiction titles on fishing, including Tales of Swordfish and Tuna (1927), Tales of Fishes (1919), and Tales of Fresh Water Fishing (1928). An excellent photographer and shrewd businessman, he secured the movie rights to his books.

Ray Cannon (1892-1977), a motion picture professional, wrote about his memorable fishing experiences in The Sea of Cortez (1966) and in articles written for the periodical Western Outdoors. Cannon, working with professional anglers, wrote his first book How to Fish the Pacific Coast: a Manual for Salt Water Fisherman (1964), which includes a dichotomous key for game fish classification.

Frontcover of Cann's Snakes Alive! (1986).
Frontcover of Cann's Snakes Alive! (1986).

Snake-men who collected and maintained snakes for show and venom collection were the precursors to popular TV naturalists present today. John Cann, an Australian, followed his family's tradition of displaying snakes at a reptile roadside stand. Cann wrote Snakes Alive!: Snake Experts & Antidote Sellers of Australia (1986), telling of several earlier snake showmen and their attempts to develop antivenins. He was also active in describing new chelonian taxa as found in his book Tortoises of Australia (1978).

Ross Allen milking a rattlesnake (undated).
Ross Allen milking a rattlesnake (undated).
Courtesy of the State Library and Archives of Florida.

E. Ross Allen (1908-1981), author of How to Keep Snakes in Captivity (1971), began the Ross Allen Reptile Institute at Silver Springs, Florida in 1929. This was a popular attraction for Florida tourists to visit and learn about reptiles as well as see Allen, a natural showman, wrestle alligators and handle venomous snakes. Allen was not a professionally trained herpetologist, but he had extensive knowledge of the natural history of reptiles and amphibians native to the Southeastern United States and was known as a pioneer in American alligator research and venom production for antivenin research. His compatriot Wilfred Neill worked for Ross for 10 years as director of research, putting his and Allen's knowledge into print. They published Keep Them Alive (1959) as well a many professional papers on distributions and life histories of various reptiles.

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