BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 9 Oct 2017
Just a week ago the Deutsche Ornithologen-Gesellschaft (DO-G; German Ornithologists’ Society) celebrated its 150th anniversary at the Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg in Halle (Saale) near Leipzig, Germany. The DO-G was actually founded in Leipzig by three men—Johann Friedrich Naumann, August Carl Eduard Baldamus and Eugen Ferdinand von Homeyer—in 1850, so the reason for their 150th anniversary conference being held in 2017 will be explained in a later post. I did not attend last week’s anniversary conference, but my friend and colleague Tim Birkhead (Univ Sheffield) gave a keynote presentation on the history of ornithology.
The DO-G is the oldest ornithological Society in the world and one of the first scientific societies devoted to Zoology. The first society devoted solely to zoology was the Zoological Society of London, founded in 1826. Societies devoted to science in general had been around since the 1600s, but it was not until the 1800s that more focussed societies—like those devoted to birds—appeared on the scene. The DO-G also publishes the oldest ornithological journal that is still publishing and has a long history of excellence and leadership in ornithology.
During the latter half of the 1800s, the BOU (1858), the Nuttall Ornithological Club (1873), the Ottawa Field-Naturalists’ Club (1879), the AOU (1883) and COS (1893)—now amalgamated as the AOS in 2016, the British Ornithologists’ Club (1892), the Wilson Ornithological Society (1888), and the Avicultural Society (1894) were all founded for the study of birds. There were undoubtedly others established at a more regional level.
Why did the 1800s see such a flourishing of interest in ornithology? Certainly people had been interested in the science of ornithology since the 1600s (Willughby and Ray, Belon, Aldrovandi, etc) but maybe there was just not enough interest locally for there to be a critical mass to meet. Certainly the exchange of ideas in scientific societies was, and still is, paramount: “Like their European predecessors, American societies were the outgrowth of gatherings of small groups of men of mutual interests, most of them amateur rather than professional scientists and scholars.” (Gibson 1982). Some ornithological societies, like the Nuttall OC, were founded explicitly for the publication of journals, but most started a journal several years later, and some—like the DO-G—were even preceded by a journal.
I am delighted to be associated with societies, like the AOS, that have evolved and blossomed from those early beginnings, particularly as they are no longer composed solely of ‘small groups of men’. Even in the 1960s, I sometimes attended meetings of two bird/scientific clubs in my home town—the Toronto Ornithological Club (TOC) and the Brodie Club—where women were not welcome (until 1980 at the TOC!), where most of the men were at least middle-aged, and just about everyone smoked. Such misogyny—in this case in the form of social exclusion—seems bizarre today but was typical of all ornithological societies in the early years. Although women’s contributions to ornithology before as recently as the 1960s were relatively few, we do well to honour their perseverance in the face of such discrimination and their outstanding early contributions to ornithological research, science writing and bird illustration.
- Aldrovandi U (1599) Ornithologiae hoc est de avibus historiae. Bologna: Apud Franciscum de Franciscis Senensem
- Belon P (1555) L’Histoire de la Nature des Oiseaux. Paris: Gilles Corrozet.
- Gibson SS (1982). Scientific societies and exchange: a facet of the history of scientific communication. The Journal of Library History 17, 144–163.
- Ray J (1678) The Ornithology of Francis Willughby. London: John Martyn.