Skip to main content
No. 599:
Florence Merriam Bailey

Today, let's meet a famous bird-watcher. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Florence Merriam was born in upstate New York during the Civil War, on a well-to-do farm. Her mother was a Rutgers graduate and an amateur astronomer. Her father was a congressman.

She was educated largely at home. Her older brother, Hart, was bound for medical school. He taught her anatomy and biology. She developed the instincts of a naturalist early in life -- walking the woods, studying birds and animals.

Florence went on to Smith College. Within months she emerged as a radical environmentalist. Her cause? It was Victorian ladies' hats. Decorating hats with bird feathers, and with stuffed birds, was all the rage in the 1880s. She went to the ramparts over the slaughter of beautiful birds.

It was a formative cause. It helped her shape an encyclopedic knowledge of birds, their habits, and their habitats. She'd written two books on American birds before she was 27. She went on to write 11 more books and over 100 articles.

This attractive young lady with her steely eyes and set jaw did not marry -- not yet. She'd chosen a different and incompatible road, by Victorian standards. She embarked on a long series of rugged field work all over the West. By 1900, Who's Who listed her as a noted author.

Her brother Hart finished medical school the year she started college. He soon became the first head of the U.S. Biological Survey. In that role, he hired a young Minnesota farmer who'd been sending him bird and animal specimens.

The man was Vernon Bailey. Bailey went on to spend 46 years with the Biological Survey. Most of that time he was its chief naturalist. He too had an instinct for the work. Hart respected him. He was a good friend to Florence. So, just before 1900, he and Florence married. She was now 37.

Florence's biographer, Harriet Kofalk, gives us a wonderful photo of the couple thirty years later. They're both grey-haired, sunburned, lean and fit. Both wear boots and jodhpurs. They're still in the field -- still learning. She was now 66 and at the peak of her career. Her writings tell of field work

... a mental gallery crowded with bird pictures, with pulses quickened by the stirring northern days, with mind swept by prairie winds, and with spirit uplifted ...

Florence Merriam Bailey's story is an odd one. The feminist message is diluted. She played out the roles of servant to her older brother and proper Victorian wife. Yet beneath appearance ran a juggernaut of purpose and conviction. Those clear eyes revealed a huge part of our national heritage to us. And we were hard pressed to see that winged heritage -- 100 years ago.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Kofalk, H., No Woman Tenderfoot: Florence Merriam Bailey. Pioneer Naturalist, College Station, TX, Texas A & M Press, 1989. I am grateful to Pat Bozeman, Head of Special Collections, UH Library, for suggesting the Kofalk source to me.