Henry Dresser and Victorian ornithology

Birds, books and business

Author: Henry A. McGhie

This book relates the story of the life and activities of Henry Dresser (1838-1915), one of the most productive English ornithologists of the mid-late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but it is not just his story. Dresser was one of the prime movers in ornithology; he witnessed and played a part in many of the transformations that took place in the discipline. His success in ornithology stemmed from his position within a web of activities, including field collecting, cabinet collecting (where specimens were bought and exchanged), in scientific societies and society more generally, in publishing and with his readership. During his second trip to Finland, in July 1858, Dresser and two friends had sailed to Sandön, a small island close to Uleabörg, to enjoy a couple of days' bird collecting. If Henry Dresser's early life was eventful, this was eclipsed by his next 'adventure', when he spent time in Texas and Mexico during the American Civil War in 1863-1864. The bulk of his spare time was spent scouring markets for bird specimens, visiting local naturalists and hunting for birds whenever and wherever possible. By 1861, Dresser was a regular attendee at the fortnightly meetings of the Zoological Society of London. The book explores various sources, and tactics, that he and other ornithologist-collectors used to take their collecting to new heights. The instigator of A History of the Birds of Europe was Richard Sharpe, who partnered with Dresser to produce a great encyclopaedia on the birds of Europe.

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‘Historians and scientists will find the book engaging, and Manchester University Press has done an impressive job of reproducing an enormous number of illustrations and plates (including some beautiful colour ones).'
Paul Lawrence Farber
Annals of Science
January 2018

‘The book itself is comprehensive but remains eminently readable, and as such it constitutes an important addition to the history of ornithology.'
Peter Lack
British Trust for Ornithology

‘The title (and concept behind the title) promises exciting and entertaining reading… A book with a strong central plot/thread. A look at the past with relevance to the future. Definitely worth a read.'
Karl Schulze-Hagen, Vogelwarte

‘This is a magnificent exploration of (British) Victorian ornithology, which brings to life many of the key figures of the period with their frequently very strained relationships.'
Alan Knox
British Birds l l l
January 2018

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