William Rowan Finding Aid
William Rowan
William Rowan Fonds
5 metres of textual material.

Biography of William Rowan

William Rowan

William Rowan was born in Basle, Switzerland, of Irish/Danish heritage, on July 29, 1891 and died in Edmonton, Alberta, on June 30, 1957. In 1908 Dr. Rowan emigrated to Alberta and worked as a cowboy on a ranch near Dorothy; to the end of his life he would speak with boyish delight of his "boots-and-saddle days." Before long, however, he returned England and formal education. This was interrupted when in August, 1914, he enlisted in the London Scottish Regiment in which he served until his honourable discharge in 1916. In 1917, he graduated from University College, London, with a B.Sc. degree. Both his adventures into what must have seemed to him the wilds of the Canadian West and his immediate enlistment at the outbreak of World War I are characteristic of the man.

Equally characteristic was his self-instruction in the fine arts. He was an accomplished pianist, and he developed genuine skills in drawing and sculpture with no more formal training than two weeks at the Slade School of Art. He chose science as a career but later spoke of the possibilities of a career as a concert pianist and visual artist. He chose his life's path in 1919 when he married Miss Reta Bush and returned to Canada to lecture in Zoology at the Unviersity of Alberta; he soon became Head of the Department and retained this office until retirement in 1956.

Dr. Rowan was one of the most popular lecturures during his time at the UofA. His figt for illustration, both verbal and graphic, was superb; and generation after generation of students paid the warmest tributes to his teaching abilities.

In the small University of Alberta of the early 1920s, there was little money to encourage individual research. Within the discipline of zoology, Dr. Rowan specialty was ornithology. Early in his career he focussed his research on the question of why birds migrate. He postulated a gonadal hormone which impells migration and whose development is affected by length of day. In his own garden he caged canaries and juncoes and, working at times under great difficulty, proved that the seasonal changes in day length cause a cyclic cyclic change in the gonads of the birds. By controlled artificial lighting he tried to make juncoes sedentary during the normal migratory season and to cause birds to fly north when they should fly south. The results of these experiments were presented as a thesis to the Univesity of London in 1929 when Dr. Rowan became a D.Sc. This was the same year he was elected Fellow of the Zoological Society of London.

Dr. Rowan did not feel that his experiments with small birds were conclusive. He needed birds which could be more easily recaptured. He therefore repeated his experiments with crows and he was ultimately successful in reversing the crows migration. In this work Dr. Rowan's flair for getting other people interested in scienctific problems came to the fore: he had farmers and other all over Alberta and beyond, cooperating in reporting upon the experimental birds he set free. In 1931 he published "The Riddle Migration" and gained international standing as a scientist. He had definitely proved that photoperiodism is a contrlling factor in the migration of birds. His amazing ability to interest the public in science also meant that he was able to collect for the Univesrity of Alberta an extremely large and varied collection of zoological specimens. Everyone in trhe province, and far byone, who chanced upon an unusual scpeicam knew at once where to send it.

After 1931 Dr. Rowan devoted his studies largely to teh cyclic fluctation in number of various North American birds and mammals, and to problems of conseration of wild life. He felt able to establish a definite ten-year cycle from peak to peak in the numbers of various species. In 1934 he was electred Fellow of the Royal Society of Canda, and in 1946 he w2as awarded the Glavelle Medal in recognition of his contribution to Canadian science. He published during his life a very large number of scientific articles, received many honours, and left at his death the manuscripts of several unfinished books of which one, devoted to conservation of wild life, has a title completely revealing as to its author, "Beloved Wilderness." To the end Dr. Rowan was still working energetically on the subject of cyclic fluctuation--and, at the same time, lending hsi infectious enthusiams to the movement for setting up a magnificent zoological garden in Edmonton.

To his skill as a scientific problem solver Dr. Rowan added the keen perception s and sensitivieness of an artist. In sculpture he was adept, but his work with a pencil was beyond praise. His drawing of animasl and birds were a free gift to any worthy enterprise: they lent distnction to many issues of the New Trail (the alumni magaznie of the University of Alberta), and some of them were used as stamps on hunting licences in order to raise money for wild life conservation. His whooping crane was bought by the Dominion of Canada for a postage stamp in 1955. Some oif his originals are in the Fogg Art Museum of Harvard and in the Reading (England) and other Art Galleries. He exhibited also at the Royal Canadian Academy of Art. To photography Dr. Rowan brought the same artistic gifts and exhibited hsi work at the Royal Photographic Society (London) and other international exhibitions.

Scope and Content

William Rowan's papers consist of correspondence, field diaries, sketches, research notes, teaching materials and observations in Zoology (especially in ornithology) from 1908 to 1957. The manuscripts of his published and unpublished books, and of his speeches and writings on scientific and social matters, are an important part of the papers.

Professor Rowan pioneered research in migration patterns and corresponded with major sceintific figures across North America, Great Britain, and the European Continent. Recognized as a talented scientific artist he designed the whooping crane stamp for the Canda Post Office in 1954. His zoological designs also originated from his work in the Canadian and international conservation movement. His speeches, radio talks and writing reflect his interest in world political matters and the nuclear age.

The Rowan family members wrote often and at length to each other. Their letters include their obseration of local, national and international affairs from 1908 to 1957.


The fonds contains 15 series:

1. Personal Material
2. Corrrespondence
3. Art
4. Music
5. Model Railway
6. Public Affairs
7. Career
8. Research
9. Conservation
10. Projects
11. Publications
12. Major Manuscripts
13. Speaking Engagements
14.  Radio Talks
15.  Miscellaneous Published Material
16. Graphic Material


Restrictions on Access

All the William Rowan material is open to researchers. Researchers should request the file(s) required by indicating the Accession Number (69-16) and the Archives file number, which appears on the left side of the pages in the Guide.

Administrative Information

Preferred Citation

"Field Notes: Vol XXXIV," January 22 - June 19, 1957. William Rowan Papers, 69-16-797.

Acquisition Information

Mrs. Reta Rowan donated her husband's papers to the University Archives in 1969.

Processing Information

The William Rowan finding aid was written in 1988. In 1992 the photographs and drawings were arranged and described to the file level. The series arrangement was redone, and series level descriptions were added along with and other RAD elements when the finding aid was encoded in 2004.