Chapter 9

I think that Cowan is the real thing.

Newgate 1930

Northern Pocket Gopher

Northern Pocket Gopher

Thomomys talpoides, Waterton Lake, Alberta, 1945. Photograph by Cowan.Image Cowan_PH_340 courtesy of University of Victoria Special Collections.
Cowan with Badger, Newgate, BC, 1930

Cowan with Badger, Newgate, BC, 1930

Photograph by Hamilton Mack Laing Image J-00271 courtesy of the Royal BC Museum, BC Archives.
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Ian McTaggart Cowan, 19 years old, 6' 2½", 153 pounds, third-year student of zoology and of “Scotch” nationality. I have studied and collected birds for the past seven years and can identify practically all BC birds. I have studied and collected the small mammals of BC for three years and have made a collection of over 200 mammals covering some 50 species. I have camped every summer for the past 15 years under conditions varying from 100 degrees in the shade on sagebrush plains to the edge of glaciers. I can make up first-class skins of mammals and birds. It might be pertinent to add that I am a fair marksman, an experienced trapper, can ride horseback and drive a car.26

Cowan’s excitement is palpable in his application to the National Museum of Canada for a summer job in 1930 as field assistant to the famous “motorcycle naturalist,” collector, writer and artist Hamilton Mack Laing. Laing, known to everyone as Mack, had been collecting for the museum since 1922 and was on contract for an exploration of the mammal fauna along the International Boundary region from the coast to the Rockies. The project was reaching its final stages in 1930 as the museum sorted out the Darwinian problem of isolated populations of small mammals, like Pocket Gophers, that inhabited the “islands” of prairie. The account of himself in his application is not unlike the format of “description, habitat and biology” he used in Mammals of BC for the gophers… 

The most important recommendation came indirectly, from the museum’s chief mammalogist himself, Dr. Rudolph M. Anderson, in a letter to Laing:

We have a young man in view who has been recommended to me from several different sources. His name is Ian McTaggart Cowan of North Vancouver, now a third-year student at University of BC. I met him at [J.W.] Winson’s place in Huntingdon last fall, and Kenneth Racey and Allan Brooks spoke highly of him, also professors Spencer and McLean Fraser of the department of zoology at the university. Cowan was working for the Entomological Branch at Kamloops last summer. He was not specializing in entomology but was engaged in tick investigation and was collecting mammals all summer primarily to look for ticks, but incidentally made skins etc. They say his forebears were naturalists, and he has camped and hunted all his life. Spencer says he is one of the best shots in BC and is a go-getter in the field. I had only a short conversation with him last fall and was much taken by him. Fraser was in Ottawa recently and we arranged to have Cowan put in an application… I would not want to wish a Student Assistant on you such as we had last summer, but I think that Cowan is the real thing and used to bushing it in the West.


26 Cowan and Guiguet. Mammals of BC, 119.
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