At a Glance:
Ornithologist, Heir, Golfer
Bird Names: 1
Region: The Americas
Charles Cory [link]
Cory’s Shearwater (Calonectris borealis)
In the Auk’s obituary of Charles B. Cory (1857-1921) it states that he “came into the world silver the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth” and in many ways, this single statement sums up the trajectory of his life. His father had been a partner in a luxury goods business and at the time Charles inherited this fortune, he was described as “if not quite, then very nearly a millionaire”. Accounting for inflation, by modern standards that would put him at a value in the region of twenty-five million dollars.
The result; a man who was completely free to indulge his interests in whichever direction he saw fit. He travelled extensively throughout much of his life, visiting Europe, Egypt and the Caribean. He was an avid and apparently skilled golfer, competing in the 1904 Olympics, and had an anthology of weird tales published. If he wanted to try his hand at something, he had the means to do so.
But it was for his other major hobby of ornithology that he is remembered and noatable in this context. He gained an interest in nature at a young age, going on trips with his friend Bicknell, who would gain his own eponymous bird in Bicknell’s Thrush. As an adult he increasingly used his inherited wealth to finance his passion for birds. He would visit Europe in 1880, on a trip principally to meet with notable ornithologists and purchase books and specimens. The freedom that his father’s fortune bought would allow him to write numerous books on nature as well as becoming a founding member and later President of the American Ornithologist’s Union.
However, in 1906 a series of bad investments resulted it a near total loss of all his money and for the first time in his life, was actually forced to earn a living through work. Yet, his connections served to save him here still. He had previously held an honorary position in the Field Museum, but to account for his new circumstances the salaried position of Curator of Zoology was created for his benefit. He would continue on to produce a number of well regarded works on both Birds and Mammals in the Americas. It is also noted that books such as “The Birds of the Americas” had numerous typographical errors, allegedly because in his wealthier days he has been used to hiring others to do this work for him, and regarded it as tedious.
Compared to many of the other figures to have birds named for them, Charles Cory generally seems to have been one of the more amiable. What he does embody however is the tendency of zoology of that period to be the domain of the wealthy enthusiast. His entire life was built upon wealth and connection, and was able to leverage it to attain a lofty position. While not necessarily an inditement on him as an individual, it should certainly be viewed as one of the system that produced him.
Where wealth is a major entry requirement into any field of study, it limits the type of type of people able to contribute to it. While perhaps not as blatant as Cory, this problem still remains, and when combined with broader socio-economic factors, it tends to result in the exclusion of already marginalised groups. To this day, ethnic minorities and other groups that have historically faced barriers to academia still continue to be under represented, while those with the money and connections still benefit from their privilege, to the detriment of science as a whole.