Open Access
1 April 2000 John Gould the Bird Man: Correspondence. Volume 1, through 1838
Jeffrey S. Marks
Author Affiliations +

Gordon C. Sauer. 1998. Maurizio Martino, Mansfield Centre, Connecticut. xiv + 340 pp. ISBN 1-57898-063-1. Cloth, $58.00. John Gould the Bird Man: Correspondence. Volume 2, 1839 through 1841.—Gordon C. Sauer. 1998. Maurizio Martino, Mansfield Centre, Connecticut. x + 408 pp. ISBN 1-57898-078-X. Cloth, $64.00 (available from Maurizio Martino Publisher, Box 373, Mansfield Centre, Connecticut 06250).—It is difficult to imagine that anyone had a greater influence on 19th century ornithology than John Gould. In the 50-year period between 1831 and 1881, Gould described more than 600 taxa of birds, including 98 genera and 386 species that remain valid to this day (A. P. Peterson pers. comm.). Moreover, he directed the production of lavishly illustrated and scientifically accurate works on the birds of Europe, Australia, Asia, Great Britain, and New Guinea, in addition to definitive monographs on toucans, trogons, New World quails, and hummingbirds. It is equally difficult to imagine that anyone from the 20th century has been more devoted to understanding the life of John Gould than has Gordon Sauer. Dr. Sauer's first major work on Gould, John Gould the Bird Man: A Chronology and Bibliography (1982), provided a detailed look into the life and works of this fascinating man. Sauer later published John Gould the Bird Man: Associates and Subscribers (1995) and John Gould the Bird Man: Bibliography 2 (1996). At present, he is in the midst of a most ambitious project: reproducing the more than 4,500 extant letters from, to, or about John Gould. Volume 3 of Correspondence will appear before this review is published, and Sauer is hard at work on volume 4; he estimates that 18 volumes will be required to complete the project!

Volume 1 includes a thorough genealogy of the Gould family. Both volumes contain a list of Gould's major published works, a brief chronology of Gould's life, and notes on the correspondence to facilitate the use of the books. The bulk of the correspondence material was supplied by Gould's living family members, the Mitchell Library in Sydney, Australia, and the British Museum (Natural History), the latter containing the largest intact collection of Gould correspondence (ca. 3,500 letters). Sauer was ably assisted by Ann Datta of the British Museum, who supplied him with photocopies of many of the original letters, and by Storrs Olson of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History, who painstakingly reviewed the manuscripts and updated the nomenclature for many of the birds mentioned in the correspondence.

The letters themselves have been typed directly from photocopies of the originals or from the originals themselves, sometimes in their entirety, and sometimes in part. Many contain Sauer's brief annotations that help set the context by identifying the person connected with the letter or by providing some other useful tidbit of information. Sauer makes no attempt to identify all of the people mentioned in the letters, but he states that biographical notes on more than 2,770 of these individuals are provided in John Gould the Bird Man: Associates and Subscribers (1995). Thus, one should obtain a copy of that book to maximize the utility of the Correspondence volumes.

The correspondence from the first two volumes spans the period from when Gould was appointed “curator and preserver” for the newly formed Zoological Society of London in 1828 to the death of his wife Elizabeth in 1841. In between, Gould got started in the publishing game with A Century of Birds Hitherto Unfigured from the Himalaya Mountains (1830 to 1832), which was followed closely by The Birds of Europe (1832 to 1837) and the first editions of his monographs on toucans (1833 to 1835) and trogons (1835 to 1838). This period also includes Gould's visit to Australia from September 1838 to April 1840 (accompanied by Elizabeth and Gould's valued field collector John Gilbert), which ultimately led to his monumental work The Birds of Australia (1840 to 1848).

In these volumes we find letters to and from many of the prominent naturalists and scientists of the day, including Audubon, Darwin, Jardine, Owen, Selby, Strickland, and Swainson. Volumes 1 and 2 also include several letters from Edward Lear, who worked for Gould from 1831 until 1837, during which time Lear executed some of the finest bird illustrations ever produced. That said, William Hewitson's remarks (7 November 1836) to Gould concerning The Birds of Europe are especially vexing: “… beautiful it certainly is, except where Mr. Lear is allowed to blot its FPAGE …” Also of interest is the letter by William Swainson to a Dr. Williams on 3 April 1832, in which Swainson remarks of A Century of Birds “… this tawdry publication has been well puffed into notice–without any other claim to attention than the few new species it contains. The figures evince a total ignorance of the anatomy of birds, and are, with scarcely one exception, distorted poses of the attitudes stolen from Audubon and myself …” Does one detect a hint of jealousy here?

Especially interesting are the many letters between Gould and William Jardine; one such letter, written by Gould on 19 December 1833, includes a sketch of the head of an Imperial Woodpecker, a spectacular species that Gould had described several months earlier. Also of special significance are the exchanges about Darwin's collections that took place among several scientists shortly after Darwin returned from his famous voyage on The Beagle. Space limitations preclude me from doing any more than scratch the surface with regard to the many letters included within these Correspondence volumes. Suffice it to say that anyone with an interest in 19th century ornithology will find no shortage of fodder to feed his or her curiosity.

A brief look at either volume of Correspondence is sufficient to make one realize that Sauer is doing historians and ornithologists a huge service in compiling this vast storehouse of information. Each volume is thoroughly indexed so that one can find every mention of a particular person or species, no matter how minor a role that entity played in the letter in question. As stated in Storrs Olson's review of Associates and Subscribers, Gordon Sauer's compilations will enable some future historian of biology to assess “the breadth and depth of Gould's lasting contributions to ornithology” so that we may “understand fully just how extraordinary Gould's accomplishments really were” (Auk 114:541, 1997).

Despite the value and utility of these volumes, they are not destined to become “best sellers,” because the production of each is strictly limited to 400 copies. Who should obtain these books? Without question, the libraries of all major ornithological research institutions should acquire them. So, too, should those among us whose interest in Gould borders on obsession. If your interest in 19th century natural history is strong but not consuming, you probably will be better off investing in Sauer's Chronology and Bibliography (1982), if you can find a copy. But if you are in this latter category, don't hesitate to track down and peruse at least one of the Correspondence volumes, for your efforts will be rewarded.


Jeffrey S. Marks "John Gould the Bird Man: Correspondence. Volume 1, through 1838," The Auk 117(2), 538-540, (1 April 2000).[0538:JGTBMC]2.0.CO;2
Published: 1 April 2000
Back to Top