John Gould – Darwin’s Ornithologist

Born today – John Gould (14 September 1804 – 3 February 1881)

Extracted from the biography at Wikipedia:
Gould was born in Lyme Regis, Dorset, the son of a gardener and the boy probably had a scanty education. Shortly afterwards his father obtained a position on an estate near Guildford, Surrey, and then in 1818 became foreman in the Royal Gardens of Windsor. The young Gould started training as a gardener, being employed under his father at Windsor from 1818 to 1824, and he was subsequently a gardener at Ripley Castle in Yorkshire. He became an expert in the art of taxidermy and in 1824 he set himself up in business in London as a taxidermist, and his skill led to him becoming the first Curator and Preserver at the museum of the Zoological Society of London in 1827.

When Charles Darwin presented his mammal and bird specimens collected during the second voyage of HMS Beagle to the Geological Society of London at their meeting on 4 January 1837, the bird specimens were given to Gould for identification. He set aside his paying work and at the next meeting on 10 January reported that birds from the Galápagos Islands which Darwin had thought were blackbirds, “gross-bills” and finches were in fact “a series of ground Finches which are so peculiar” as to form “an entirely new group, containing 12 species.” This story made the newspapers. In March, Darwin met Gould again, learning that his Galápagos “wren” was another species of finch and the mockingbirds he had labelled by island were separate species rather than just varieties, with relatives on the South American mainland. Subsequently Gould advised that the smaller southern Rhea specimen that been had rescued from a Christmas dinner was a separate species which he named Rhea darwinii, whose territory overlapped with the northern rheas. Darwin had not bothered to label his finches by island, but others on the expedition had taken more care. He now sought specimens collected by captain Robert FitzRoy and crewmen. From them he was able to establish that the species were unique to islands, an important step on the inception of his theory of evolution by natural selection. Gould’s work on the birds was published between 1838 and 1842 in five numbers as Part 3 of Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle, edited by Charles Darwin.

(Print of Porphyrio porphyrio, from The Birds of Europe)

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One Comment to “John Gould – Darwin’s Ornithologist”

  1. Interesting. I am about to go and see a collection of his work and this background is really useful.

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