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The Memorable William Rowan

Ned Corbett never forgot the time that he shared a pot of tea with William Rowan. Corbett, whose name was at one time synonymous with the U of A’s extension department, always enjoyed recounting the circumstances of his first encounter with the new zoology lecturer who moved into the office next door in 1920. "My first meeting with Rowan occurred when he telephoned me to come over to his lab for tea. He handed me a poisonous looking mixture of tea and Klim with his right hand, while in his left hand he held up for my inspection a cat’s brain which he said was ’a most beautiful specimen.’ He flipped the gory specimen into some sort of container, picked up a plate of biscuits and passed them around. That was my first and last tea with Professor Rowan," recalls Corbett in the memoirs he wrote after retiring as director of extension in 1937.

Rowan may have been entirely unaware of the effect he was creating. As Corbett — who became a good friend despite the shaky beginning — would discover, the zoologist was completely devoted to his teaching and research. On the other hand, Corbett’s blithe host may have had rather more than an inkling of the impression he was making, for Rowan was also something of a showman.

Scientist, artist, musician and raconteur, the flamboyant zoologist who died in 1957, was one of the most colorful characters in the history of the University of Alberta. And no other University researcher before or since has captured the imagination of the entire province the way Rowan did in the roller-coaster years of the ’20s and ’30s.

William Rowan was born in Basel, Switzerland in 1891 to parents of Irish and Danish ancestry and received his early education in France. In 1908 — the same year that the University of Alberta was opening its doors — Rowan stepped off a CPR train at Gleichan, in the heart of Alberta’s ranching district. His public school education had prepared him for a career in the British public service, but he would spend the next three years working as a ranch hand — a "cowpuncher." In his free time he photographed and sketched wildlife, just as his hero, the author and illustrator Ernest Thomson Seton, had done in Manitoba.

His experience on the Canadian frontier reinforced Rowan’s childhood interest in nature, and in late 1911 he returned to England to study science at University College, London. There he enrolled in the honors zoology program, but his studies were interrupted when he enlisted in the London Scottish Regiment at the outbreak of the First World War. He graduated in 1917, having received an honorable discharge from his regiment because of heart problems.

By 1919 he was back in Canada, serving as a lecturer at the University of Manitoba. It was there that Henry Marshall Tory, the first president of the University of Alberta, found him the following year and persuaded him to come further west to join his staff. The understanding was that, should Rowan prove satisfactory in the first year, he would remain at the University to found a department of zoology.

Once again Tory had displayed his prodigious talent for finding the right person for the job. Unfortunately, in this instance Tory would fail to appreciate the wisdom of his choice: as it turned out, the University president and the new zoology lecturer held very different views about science and were at odds almost immediately. Rowan’s celebrated research contributions were made without Tory’s support — indeed, in spite of Tory’s efforts to scuttle much of what the zoologist was doing.

No person contributed more to Canadian higher education and scientific research in the first half of this century than did Henry Marshall Tory, but his view of appropriate scientific pursuit was a very narrow one, rooted in a national boosterism focused on making Canada competitive in what Tory perceived to be an international race for progress. A tireless promoter of industrial research, Tory preferred applied work and did not care for theoretical science. He also had fixed ideas about zoological research: to his mind, it was something that took place in the laboratory — and only in the laboratory.

Rowan defined his science much more broadly. He was adept in the laboratory, but was in the forefront of the movement which would give an ecological and experimental focus to zoology. "Rowan was a new type of scientist, unknown at the University of Alberta and elsewhere in Canada," says Marianne Ainley, principal of the Simone de Beauvoir Institute, the college for women’s studies at Concordia University in Montreal. Ainley has written about the Tory-Rowan conflict ("Rowan vs. Tory: Conflicting Views of Scientific Research in Canada, 1920-1935" in Scientia Canadensis, Summer 1988) and her 380-page biography of Rowan will appear on bookstore shelves later this year under the title Restless Energy (Vehicule Press, Montreal).

Ainley points out that Rowan, originally self-trained in the best tradition of British natural historians, learned precise, up-to-date laboratory methods in zoology at University College. Moreover, in his classes and during field expeditions, he acquired an ecological awareness, coming to appreciate the complex interrelationships among a region’s flora and fauna and the whole spectrum of environmental factors. Experienced in using statistical methods, Rowan liked both experimental and field research and did not care for speculative theories. Instead, he searched for basic biological principles.

By the time that he had returned to Canada, Rowan’s main scientific interest was birds, and he viewed western Canada as a wonderful outdoor laboratory for ecological and ornithological studies. However, only a few weeks after Rowan’s arrival at the U of A, Tory warned him to give up both field activities and bird studies and stick to the laboratory and "real" zoology — which, to Tory, ornithology was not. Fortunately, Rowan did not comply, although he was careful to confine most of his field work and ornithological pursuit to his own time — early mornings and evenings, weekends, summer holidays and so on — until Tory left the University in 1928. But even then Rowan was not out of Tory’s orbit, for the U of A’s founder went on to become president of the National Research Council, where he was able to influence the availability of funding for Rowan’s research.

Tory may not have thought Rowan’s interest in birds was real science, but history has shown otherwise. From Rowan’s ornithological studies came one of the most important original contributions to scientific understanding ever made at the University of Alberta: the discovery of the importance of photoperiod (day length) in triggering migration and reproductive behavior in birds. The research that established this understanding was well known throughout Alberta, for Rowan enlisted the entire province in his study. During the Depression years of the ’30s, the University of Alberta zoologist and his yellow-tailed crows provided grist for countless hours of conversation in an Alberta badly in need of distraction.

As early as 1924, Rowan had begun experimenting with the effect of hours of daylight on migratory bird species. The popular theories of the day held that migration was likely triggered by temperature fluctuation or changes in barometric pressure. Some observers had considered the involvement of photoperiod, but no one had drawn a direct connection between migration and the actual conditions of the birds’ gonads — from his observation of the species migrating north through Edmonton, Rowan knew these to be at an advanced developmental state in the spring.

Seeing migration as itself a particular phase of sexual behavior, Rowan began to ask himself what would happen if one were able somehow to stimulate the gonads of migrating birds to spring excitement in the fall. Would they then fly north oblivious to other seasonal cues? To find out, Rowan began experimenting with dark-eyed juncos (Junco hyemalis), trapping several of these birds from the sparrow family and caging them in his back-yard in aviaries made of packing cases and discarded mosquito netting.

By artificially lengthening the daylight hours to which the birds were exposed, Rowan was able to promote spring behavior in the middle of an Edmonton winter; the male juncos began to sing and their testes began to swell. This work earned Rowan a DSc degree from University College, but a direct link to migration remained to be established: the seasonally-disoriented birds of Rowan’s experiments appeared ready to wing northward into the face of winter, but it was impossible to tell where they went — north, east, west or south — when released.

Looking for "better guinea pigs of the airways," Rowan decided upon the crow. It was, he said, "omnivorous and easy to keep, avian vermin that might be shot by anyone at any time and a species that migrates in Alberta with great regularity."

For assistance in obtaining crows for his experiments, Rowan was able to turn to his wide-ranging network of contacts. Recalls Corbett in his memoirs: "Wherever Rowan went he was news. This was partly due to the spectacular character of much of his experimental work, but also to a well-developed dramatic sense, a gift for humorous description of the experiments he was carrying on; and a devilish delight in giving newsmen highly colored yarns about animals, birds and fish. The newspapers were full of stories, vastly exaggerated, about his exploits. The result was that he was so widely known that it was never difficult for him to obtain the cooperation of farmers, boy scouts, or the RCMP when he needed assistance."

For his now-legendary experiment, Rowan was able to assemble 500 crows. He kept them in chicken-wire cages on the south bank of the North Saskatchewan River, where they attracted much attention from users of the High Level Bridge, which passed overhead. The crows were divided into two colonies of equal size. There was an experimental group whose cage blazed with artificial light that diminished the night in ever-increasing steps, and a control group, which experienced the natural seasonal shortening of daylight.

In November 1931, Rowan released his crows, their bright yellow tails (dyed by a local cleaner) proclaiming their special place in science. The release was accompanied by a radio and press blitz asking for public cooperation and offering rewards for every yellow-tailed crow caught or shot anywhere.

With the help of eagle-eyed "research assistants" on farmsteads throughout Alberta, Rowan was able to account for more than 50 per cent of the crows he released. In the end, more crows from the control group were recovered — fewer than 30 per cent of the crows from this group were lost — because they tended either to stay put where they were released or to head south, whereas those from the experimental group followed their surging hormones northward into less-populated regions. The experiment yielded results as conclusive as could be hoped: the birds from the experimental group went north; no others did. Photoperiod was clearly the key which unlocked the central riddle of migration.

This breakthrough in understanding gained Rowan international standing as a scientist and his prestigious papers on his research helped chart the future course of ornithology, expanding it from merely a descriptive natural history to a realm of study incorporating avian biology. His innovative approach inspired others around the world to emulate his work, and by the 1950s investigators had studied the effects of daylight on the reproductive cycles of more than 50 species of vertebrates. Today photobiology is a thriving research area with journals, societies and annual meetings, and Rowan can be considered its intellectual founder.

In 1934 Rowan was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. Twelve years later he was awarded the Society’s Flavelle Medal in recognition of his contributions to Canadian science. In 1956 he retired, having served as chair of the University’s Department of Zoology for 35 years; he died the following year. After his death, no less a scientist than the eminent British biologist Sir Julian Huxley described him as one of the best experimental zoologists of the 20th century.

But zoology was not Rowan’s only preoccupation. He loved music and was a self-taught pianist of considerable talent. It is said that in his later years he looked back a little wistfully with the thought that had he not chosen to follow his interest in nature, he might have been a concert pianist. Rowan was also an accomplished artist, adept at sculpture, but particularly noted for his pencil sketches. In addition, he brought his artist’s eye to photography, and his works were shown at the Royal Photographic Society in London and at other international exhibitions.

The multi-talented Rowan also tried his hand at working with watercolors, and the few examples of his work in this medium show that he could have readily mastered the technique. There was, however, a very good reason that he opted to concentrate on drawing: his efforts with color revealed all too plainly that he was color-blind.

After Rowan’s death, an essay written by University of Alberta English professor F.M. Salter in memory of his colleague was included in the Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada. Following a brief biographical tribute describing Rowan’s contributions to science and his many talents, Salter concludes with the following words of praise for a man who was larger than life: "Many-sided, many-gifted, Dr. Rowan was a man of the keenest, boyish enthusiasms. No one who had spent five minutes in his company would ever forget him. He made the science that was not a science meaningful to a whole province; and as an artist, lecturer, and man he served his time and his generation well."

Published Summer 1993.

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