Large, black, flightless birds with unpredictable tempers and colourful heads and necks, cassowaries have enthralled European audiences for centuries, but perhaps no one more so than private collector and zoologist Lionel Walter Rothschild (1868-1937). Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Rothschild acquired hundreds of living cassowaries which were kept in his private zoological collection. This paper explores the nature of Rothschild's private zoo and how the collection of living cassowaries was used to support his zoological activities. Spread across three sites-the family estate at Tring Park, the zoological gardens in Regent's Park, and the business premises of Cambridge-based taxidermist Frederick Doggett-it will examine how Rothschild used the living birds kept in his private zoo to devise and inform a process for the preparation and display of cassowary specimens in museum galleries. It will show how he recruited specialist artists and taxidermists to perfect the art, and the significant financial investment this entailed. This is followed by exploration of how Rothschild's access to and observations of living birds informed his taxonomic work and, in particular, the identification of species and subspecies. The argument is made that Rothschild's private zoo and access to living cassowaries enabled his dedication to the study of the genus and ultimately underpinned his reputation as a world authority on cassowaries in the early 20th century.

On Saturday November 13, 1926, the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette reported the exciting news that the Zoological Gardens in Regent's Park, known today as London Zoo, had received a new shipment of animals. Among the new arrivals were nine young cassowaries. The reporter described how “One had always imagined that cassowaries were mythical birds …. Yet here they are in flesh and feather.” Cassowaries were a popular feature of menageries and zoological collections throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. Large, black, flightless birds with colourful heads and necks, cassowaries enthralled audiences with their unpredictable tempers and “delightful habit of kicking.” But these nine cassowaries were awaiting the attention of one particular spectator. The reporter continued,

Their one misfortune is that they have to wait till Lord Rothschild can find time to visit the Zoo before they can be christened. For the nine cassowaries belong, it seems, to five different families, and nobody but the greatest expert can tell which is which …. In the meantime the strange birds are enjoying themselves in their cages in complete ignorance of the fact they are as yet nameless.1

By 1926, naturalist and private collector Lionel Walter Rothschild (1868–1937) had dedicated nearly 30 years to the study of cassowaries, research which centred on their identification and classification. The nine new arrivals were the latest in a long line of living cassowaries acquired by Rothschild and kept as part of what the press called his “private zoo.”2 This “private zoo” was unusual in character as it was not restricted to a single geographical location. Rather, it was spread over three sites: the family estate at Tring Park, the zoological gardens in Regent's Park, and the business premises of Cambridge-based taxidermist Frederick Doggett (1843–1921). The animals in Rothschild's zoo were united by ownership rather than physical proximity. Each site gave Rothschild privileged access to living cassowaries that informed his scientific investigations and ultimately led him to describe 19 “new” forms of cassowary.3 This work earned Rothschild a reputation as “the only man in London whose judgement on the matter [of cassowaries] is really authoritative.”4 But how and why did Rothschild acquire the birds in such large numbers? How did his possession and study of live cassowaries advance his zoological activities? And to what extent was his taxonomic authority dependent on the live birds?

This article has two aims. The first is to reveal the role of private zoos in the generation of taxonomic research. While scholarly interest in the history of public zoos has grown substantially in recent decades, private zoos remain largely unexamined. Beginning with Harriet Ritvo's The Animal Estate, historians have demonstrated how public zoos established in the 19th century symbolised imperial conquest and human mastery over the animal kingdom.5 Subsequent historians have considered the ways in which public zoos acted as civic sites and provided forms of rational recreation, together with the layers of human-animal relationships they embodied. Andrew Flack's study of Bristol Zoo, for example, charts societal changes in human-animal relationships and how they manifested in the zoo, addressing themes of value, display, and emotion.6 More recently, historians have turned their attention to the zoo as a site for the generation of scientific knowledge, as this special issue testifies.7 However, few, if any, have considered that subject within the context of a private zoo. By taking Rothschild and his study of cassowaries as its subject, this paper will offer new insights into Rothschild's scientific practice and, more significantly, into the role of the private zoo in the generation of taxonomic research. It will demonstrate how private ownership and financial independence enabled individuals like Rothschild to carve out their own specialist areas, where their authority was derived from the living animals to which they had unrivalled access.

The second aim of this paper is to build on precursory studies which have demonstrated the connections between zoos and natural history museums. Historians have long recognised the zoo as a source of specimens for natural history museums, as demonstrated in the essays in Samuel Alberti's Afterlives of Animals.8 However, in these examples knowledge production tended to happen after an animal had died and its body was sent from the zoo to the museum-based anatomists and zoologists, who observed, recorded, and dissected the animal for their scientific publications. Moreover, the origin of those specimens was not overtly publicised, for fear, as Alberti has suggested, of “somehow ‘tainting’ the scientific data.”9 This paper, in contrast, explores the way in which animals from the private zoo informed taxonomic research prior to death and were openly used as evidence of the scientific conclusions drawn by their owner. Furthermore, while historians such as Alice Would have documented how taxidermists and curators visited animals in the zoo to inform and improve their taxidermic practice, this paper will look to elevate the role of the zoo in the network of taxidermy production.10 It argues that the zoo was in fact a key site in this network, providing a vital space in which the living animal body could be moulded into the best condition possible, in anticipation of its death and eventual preparation for display.

The paper begins with a brief discussion of the cassowary and of Rothschild's zoological activities, before examining how Rothschild used the living cassowaries kept in his private zoo to devise and inform a process for the preparation and display of cassowary specimens in museum galleries. It will show how he recruited specialist artists and taxidermists to perfect the process, and the significant financial investment this entailed. It then considers how Rothschild's observations of living birds informed his taxonomic work and the identification of species and subspecies. It argues that Rothschild's private zoo and access to living cassowaries enabled his dedication to the study of the genus and ultimately underpinned his reputation as a world authority on cassowaries in the early 20th century. In doing so, the paper poses broader questions about the value of the zoo (private or otherwise) as a site for studying taxonomy and how this could inform relationships between zoos and museums.

Distinctive for their size, black plumage, multi-coloured head and neck, and three toes, cassowaries (Casuariidae) belong to a group of mostly flightless birds known as ratites, alongside emus, rheas, ostriches, and kiwi. Omnivorous, these typically solitary birds reside in tropical forests across northern Australia, New Guinea, and on some neighbouring islands where there are introduced populations.11 Cassowaries first became known to European traders in the 16th century when a Dutch ship docked in Java and its captain was presented with a cassowary from Banda Island. It was loaded aboard and arrived in Amsterdam in 1597. The bird was later documented and described by Aldrovandi as Avis eme in 1603, and the first drawing, titled Emeu, appeared in Clusius in 1605.12

Since then, cassowaries have frequently appeared in British culture. Descriptions and illustrations featured in periodicals such as The Royal Magazine and The Athenaeum throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. A popular doggerel also helped to immortalise the cassowary in the popular press: “If I were a cassowary on the plains of Timbuctoo, And if I met a missionary, I'd eat him and his hymn-book too.”13 Meanwhile, by the turn of the 19th century, greater numbers of cassowaries arrived in England for display in menageries. They were a noted feature of Gilbert Pidcock's “Grand Menagerie” display at the Exeter-Change in 1800, for example, and a cassowary was headlined as one of the “rarities” of P. T. Barnum's London Show in November 1889.14

Interest in and display of cassowaries reflected a wider interest in Australian fauna that first developed amongst naturalists and the public alike following the return of the Endeavour expedition (1768–1771). Joseph Banks (1743–1820) and Daniel Solander (1733–1783) bought back flora and fauna from Australia—most notably the kangaroo—which enthralled audiences with its unique and previously unseen characteristics.15 However, it was not just the uniqueness of animals like the platypus and echidna that caused sustained interest amongst a range of audiences, but the questions the animals posed to naturalists regarding their classification, appearance, and reproduction.16 Australian fauna challenged existing ideas about creation as it seemed so strange compared to fauna in the rest of the world.17

Yet, while kangaroos and platypuses became popular subjects of enquiry amongst European scientists, cassowaries garnered less interest. For over two centuries only a single species was described. It was not until the 1850s that new descriptions began to appear. First Casuarius casuarius australis by William Sheridan Wall in 1854, then the New Britain Cassowary (Casuarius bennetti) by John Gould (1804–1881) in 1857, followed by descriptions by Edward Blyth (1810–1873) (Casuarius unappendiculatus) and Philip Lutley Sclater (1829–1913) (Casuarius bicarunculatus) in 1860. From then onwards, Rothschild noted how “forms have constantly been increasing” and numbered 20 by 1900.18 Today, scientists only recognise three extant species of cassowary. Rothschild played his part in expanding the number of recognised forms and used the collection kept in his zoo to do so.

During the late 19th century, Lionel Walter Rothschild became famous for his zoological activities. Expected to join the family bank, N. M. Rothschild & Sons, he instead devoted his life to the study of zoology and accumulated one of the largest zoological collections ever assembled by a single individual. At its peak, in around 1930, the research collection included over 2.5 million Lepidoptera and 300,000 bird skins, while thousands more specimens formed a public collection on display in his purpose-built museum in Tring, Hertfordshire. This collection delighted and entertained museum visitors, while the research collection was reserved for Rothschild; his two curators, Ernst Hartert (1859–1933) and Karl Jordan (1861–1959); and the community of scholars who consulted the museum's specimens. The museum also produced a scientific journal, Novitates Zoologicae, and fostered a global network of collectors who provided its research material. Rothschild's vast inherited wealth enabled this wide range of zoological activity, not easily matched by other collectors and researchers of the period.19

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Figure 1: Walter Rothschild. From Natural History Museum Picture Library, no. 9105 (https://nhmimages.com/asset/9105/). Reproduced with permission of the Trustees of the Natural History Museum.

Rothschild's research collection was built explicitly to support the museum's scientific agenda, which centred on the study of taxonomy (the identification, classification, and naming of specimens) and, in particular, geographical variation. Rothschild and his curators used the extensive collections to support and advance their particular scientific approach, and between them described over 5,000 new species and produced some 1,200 publications based on the collection, work which saw them make a significant and enduring contribution to zoological science. However, alongside the extensive public and research collections, Rothschild was an avid collector of living animals, sourced from animal dealers like Albert Edward Jamrach (1845–1916) and William Cross (1840–1900). Initially, Rothschild kept them in what the press dubbed his “private zoo” at Tring Park (the Rothschild family estate), where he studied their habits and behaviours, not just their anatomy and taxonomy.20

Rothschild was one of many private collectors to establish collections of live animals during this period, although unusual in housing those animals across different sites. Fellow private zoo owners included Alfred Ezra (1872–1955), Garrard Tyrwhitt-Drake (1881–1964), and the Duke of Bedford (1888–1953), all of whom were concerned with matters of acclimatisation. As Harriet Ritvo has argued, the work of private menagerists was imbued with the symbolism of empire, “their ability to confine, produce, and ingest wild animals within their own domains,” a demonstration of “their own splendid preeminence among their fellow humans and their dominion over nature.”21

Contemporary commentators viewed Rothschild's creation of a zoo at Tring Park as part of the acclimatisation movement, the purpose of which was to find and acclimatise exotic species that could be successfully farmed to feed the growing populations in UK cities.22 A reporter for The Bucks Herald described Tring Park as “quite a ‘Jardin d'Acclimatation,’” after Rothschild successfully acclimatised Australian animals such as emus, kangaroos, and cassowaries, despite their exposure to severe English winters.23 However, it also suggests an early form of ethology. Although not recognised as a discipline until the mid-20th century, by the end of the 19th century the scientific community had placed increasing emphasis on the observation of living animals and the study of their habits and behaviour.24 This period of natural history reform, referred to by Lynn Nyhart as the rise of the “biological perspective,” emphasised the need to investigate the living animal and approach the study of nature holistically, thus challenging, as Oliver Hochadel has argued, “the predominate way in which animals were studied at universities and academies of science [which focused] virtually exclusively on taxonomy and anatomy.”25 Rothschild certainly shared in this shift in focus, although he did not often publish on the animals he kept. One major exception were the cassowaries, which became a central focus for him throughout his zoological career.

The foundations of this “veritable paradise” were established early in Rothschild's life.26 In the 1880s, he kept a dingo he was trying to breed, took a flock of kiwis with him to Cambridge, and trained zebra to pull a carriage, all of which fuelled public perceptions of his eccentricity.27 After his time at Cambridge, cages and paddocks were built at Tring Park for a range of species, including pelicans, zebu, and giant tortoises. But Rothschild had a particular “predilection” for Ratite birds, an interest which first developed in childhood when emus (Dromaius novaehollandiae) were let out into Tring Park by Lord Battersea (1843–1907).28 Rothschild was 8 years old, and 9 when they laid their first “beautiful dark green eggs,” which he described brought “universal excitement” to the residents of Tring Park.29 His express interest in cassowaries, however, did not develop until the 1890s when he looked for specimens to display in his museum.

Construction of the Tring Zoological Museum began in 1889, and it was completed and opened to the public in 1892, thereafter offering free public access to displays that Rothschild felt best presented the natural world and which imparted entertaining educational information.30 When Rothschild sought cassowaries for display, he was horrified “by the abominably stuffed and grotesquely coloured specimens preserved in all our museums” and “proceeded to devise a method by which their natural appearance could be better displayed.”31 To do so, he wanted to use live birds to inform the preparation of taxidermy mounts.

During that same period, Rothschild committed to writing a monograph on Ratites for the Deutsche Zoologische Gesellschaft's Das Tierreich, but found limited material of “any great value” and set about collecting living examples of all Ratite birds. In doing so, he became particularly “struck” by “the inadequate figures and descriptions hitherto available” of cassowaries and decided “it might be useful if I published a monograph of the genus Casuarius, with coloured figures and a detailed anatomical description.” Rothschild's aim for the monograph was to determine “the species and geographical races of these birds,” work that he concluded would only be possible through access to and first-hand observations of live cassowaries.32 He felt that previous work to classify species and subspecies of cassowary had been hampered by taxonomists' predominant study of dead specimens, in which “the disappearance after death of the most characteristic coloration and structure of the bare skin on the head and neck” had resulted in limited knowledge of the species.33 Rothschild therefore set out to acquire “as complete a collection alive as possible” of cassowaries to aid his work.34 This search for completeness reflected the shared ambitions of natural history museums, zoos, and aquaria, where collecting as many species as possible was tied to prestige.35 The difference in this instance was the interplay between the two institutions. Rothschild wanted live birds for taxonomic research, and so they were predestined to join the museum's collection. As will be shown, this created an unusually close relationship between Rothschild's museum and zoo, which was not just a source of cadavers, but a repository of living evidence that supported the taxonomic conclusions of its owner, and a place in which the living animal body could be moulded in anticipation of the animals' death and eventual preparation for display.

These two goals—one concerning the display of cassowaries in his museum and one taxonomic work—initiated what would become a life's work. Rothschild's dedication was driven less by a quest for reputation than it was a passion (verging on an obsession) for the strange birds. Rothschild wrote his first article on cassowaries in 1898, published a monograph in 1900, and wrote over 25 more articles, the last one appearing in print only months before his death in 1937.36 Meanwhile the museum's collection of cassowaries prepared for exhibition totalled some 62 specimens at the time of his death. Both areas of this work were made possible by Rothschild's keeping of live cassowaries in his zoo.

To stock his zoo with cassowaries, Rothschild used his vast network of collectors and dealers to “institute a systematic search” for them, as cassowaries, in various life stages, were mainly imported.37 The Inverness Courier reported how “the officers of every ship that sailed for New Guinea and other haunts of the bird knew that good prices awaited them for every specimen they found.”38 Dealers were also on constant alert and informed Rothschild of potential acquisitions. In 1908, taxidermist Frederick Doggett, for example, notified Rothschild of a specimen of “Occipitalis” in the possession of animal dealer Philip Castang, which had died on arrival and “was not represented in the museum at Tring, there being only two specimens, one in Paris and this one.”39 Dealers who helped Rothschild secure “new” species were rewarded by having species named after them, such as Casuarius doggetti and Casuarius jamrachi.40 The naming of animals was a form of “social capital”—a display of an individual's credentials as a scientist.41 In this context, by choosing to name a specimen after the dealer who had sourced it, Rothschild was publicly acknowledging the collaborative nature of his activities but more likely incentivising the dealers to continue their searches for “new” animals for him to study.

Rothschild also purchased specimens from London Zoo. In 1898, he learnt of a specimen of Casuarius uniappendiculatus in the zoological gardens and wrote to Secretary P. L. Sclater offering “£40 or £45” for it, a substantial increase on the £37 the zoo had originally paid. He wrote, “I want this kind for study alive & also when dead …. I of course will undertake to remove it from the gardens while it lives.” Rothschild's request was granted. He paid £45 for the bird and it joined living examples of what at the time were classified as eight different species of cassowary, in Tring Park.42

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Figure 2: A cassowary at Tring Park. From Natural History Museum Picture Library, no. 5979 (https://nhmimages.com/asset/5979/). Reproduced with permission of the Trustees of the Natural History Museum.

Tring Park was neither a zoo by modern definition nor on the scale of London Zoo and its contemporaries. It was a series of cages and paddocks spread across the family estate, and public visitors were not routinely admitted. In fact, it seemed to receive few visitors except for those invited by the Rothschild family, such as photographer Gambier Bolton (1854–1928), who photographed some of the animals, and Prime Minister Arthur Balfour (1848–1930), who spent the weekend with Lord Rothschild in 1903, and “made the acquaintance” of the emus and cassowaries.43

The keeping of live animals at Tring Park ended temporarily in 1888 when Rothschild's father was attacked by one of the free-roaming cassowaries while riding.44 Thereafter, some animals were placed into the care of Frederick Doggett in Cambridge.45 The vast majority, however, were transferred to London Zoo, which Rothschild used for many years as an overflow for his animals. Through a process called depositing, Rothschild placed animals in the gardens on temporary loan, all the while maintaining ownership of them. This method of acquisition was used by London Zoo throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and Rothschild was one of a range of individuals, mainly Fellows of the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), who “deposited” animals in the gardens. This method enabled the ZSL to keep the gardens well-stocked with animals for minimal financial outlay at a time when death rates were high and replacing animals was a costly endeavour.46 In the case of the cassowaries, the arrangement also provided ZSL with a popular exhibit. The London Evening Standard described cassowaries as one of “the old favourites” and commented that on the Easter Bank Holiday in 1900, “it was scarcely possible to move … in the ostrich-house where the visitors gathered to see Mr Rothschild's fine collection of cassowaries.”47 In return, Rothschild gained somewhere to house, study, and observe his animals when unable to do so at Tring Park.48

Gradually, cassowaries were returned to Tring Park, but some remained in London Zoo. In January 1899, for example, Rothschild instructed zookeeper Arthur Thomson to find room for 13 cassowaries that he did not “want to kill” but was unable to house at Tring Park. He wanted Thomson “to exhibit them in the zoo or at least put them in places where they can have runs,” stating that “it is useless for you to have them if you shut them up in boxes.”49 Rothschild was likely concerned less with their display for zoo visitors or the impact of unnatural conditions on their behaviour, than he was that they remained in good physical condition and did not come to any harm by being constrained in boxes. Physical injury could potentially jeopardise Rothschild's taxonomic work and the preparation of the birds for display after death.

Once in the zoo, the cassowaries were subjected to a finely tuned process which ultimately saw them “reproduced into the stuffed specimens in the museum.”50 The often-young cassowaries were placed in his zoo while they matured into adult plumage, at which point Rothschild could observe the “true colours of the wattles” and “brilliant hues of the featherless skins on their heads and faces”—colouration which Rothschild believed was key to determining species variation. Once the bird was in “full colour,” Rothschild sent skilled painters, such as Dutch bird-illustrator John Gerrard Keulemans (1842–1912), to record that colouration in “careful” life drawings.51

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Figure 3: A “Northern Cassowary” in London Zoo (October 1914). From F. W. Bond Photographic Collection no. 0812. Reproduced with the permission of the Zoological Society of London.

Some of the birds lived for many years in the zoo, others only a short time. Some died of natural causes, while others were “killed by order.”52 On January 13, 1908, for example, Rothschild wrote to Doggett: “As far as I can make out, the Suffuses which you have alive, is the only one of the type of this kind, and, therefore, it must be killed and stuffed.”53 Rothschild was determined to have one of every “species” or “subspecies” in his museum's collection and was not always patient enough to wait for its natural demise. Episodes such as this challenge the idea that zoo animals were usually donated to museums as by-products of tried and failed attempts to keep the animals alive, with arrangements made only after death, for here, their fate as museum specimens was predestined owing to Rothschild's search for completeness in his museum collection.54

Once deceased, and if not already in his possession, the cassowaries were sent to Doggett in Cambridge, Rothschild's preferred taxidermist for cassowaries. Doggett awaited Rothschild's instruction before beginning any preparation, but his access to the live birds gave him valuable insight into the physicality not just of cassowaries in general, but of individual birds. Taxidermists usually handled skins and carcasses of animals they had not seen in life, and so would visit zoos to observe the live animal and then use those observations to inform their taxidermic practice.55 Similarly, as Alice Would has shown, curators visited zoos to acquire “comprehensive knowledge of the material animal body” in order “to police the taxidermist” and ensure mounts “embodied” the animal intended.56 Rothschild and Doggett were therefore not unusual in following this practice. What was unusual was the application of this process to individual birds—Doggett saw the same bird in life that he was later to prepare in death and could incorporate those observations into his work for a more life-like reconstruction.

Moreover, owing to the large number of cassowaries Doggett prepared for Rothschild, he developed successful techniques of which he was highly protective.57 Doggett would not permit people in his shop while he was mounting cassowaries, nor would he dispatch incomplete cassowaries:

I cannot see my way to send all the unfinished Cassowaries to Tring as I should be giving away the methods it has cost me many years of toil to discover the effective and satisfactory way in which they now appear, and for which I have been offered a large amount of money.58

One particular technique Doggett developed was for preparing cassowaries afflicted with eczema—a common ailment said to contribute to the death of many cassowaries in the zoo. These birds posed a particular challenge, for as Doggett described, “the feathery appendages round the eyes and ears come off with the [sores] of the eczema,” and so, “after the colouring is done I replace these one at a time which proves the successful look when finished as without these the birds' head and neck looks like a piece of painted wood.”59 But rather than just develop a technique that dealt with the problem, Doggett took proactive measures to avoid having to prepare birds suffering from eczema at the time of their death, and consulted individuals involved in animal keeping for their husbandry advice. In March 1908, for instance, he sought guidance from Mr. Jenkinson of Belle Vue Gardens “on correct treatment” for a cassowary with eczema. The recommended treatment seemingly worked, as in May Doggett reported “some improvement.”60

In this instance, Doggett was both able to make direct observations of the bird to inform his later work and also to control the quality of the carcase he would eventually have to work with, and he deployed his growing expertise to improve that. The zoo, then, became a site in which taxidermists like Doggett could mould the animal body in life to ensure it became what they considered to be an archetypal specimen, and represent its species or subspecies in death. Many scholars have supported the view, first expressed by Donna Haraway, that taxidermy is a cultural construction layered in patriarchal and colonial narratives, as well as that of scientific discovery.61 This emphasis has resulted in historians primarily focusing on the dead animal and its skin. By overlooking the live animal, the zoo is largely obscured as an important site in the network of taxidermy production. Yet, as this example demonstrates, it was an additional space within which the animal was subjected to manipulation by the human hand, to allow for a reconstruction in death that matched its owner's or creator's intended vision.62

Once the mounts were prepared, artist Frederick William Frohawk (1861–1946) was tasked with painting the heads and necks, using Keulemans' life drawings as direction. The intricate process involved the application of four or five coats of carefully blended paint, over a period of 4 days. Frohawk described: “it is a far easier job to represent the wattling of the birds on a flat surface like drawing paper and to make three such paintings than to paint properly the head and neck of one stuffed cassowary.”63 Through Frohawk's employment, Rothschild ensured that the colours of the cassowary's “natural appearance,” which dissipate after death, were recorded in perpetuity through the life drawings and, for a time at least, the mounts themselves.64

Enlisting this varied expertise came at considerable expense and demonstrates the importance Rothschild placed on coloration in his work on cassowaries. Each live bird cost Rothschild anywhere between £45 and £150, and in 1889 alone Rothschild was said to have had 187 specimens.65 Doggett received £20 per adult cassowary, and Frohawk was paid 10 shillings per day to paint the neck and wattle, and £10 per complete bird. In total then, each mounted cassowary cost Rothschild at least £75, or some £9,400 today.66 This was a significant financial investment and it is likely that only a man of Rothschild's means and resources would have been able to undertake such a task.67

Unsurprisingly, Rothschild was forced to defend that expenditure on several occasions. In 1899, he wrote to his curator Hartert:

as to my paying £20 when other people said it was too much. You know as well as I do that at the present moment Doggett is the only taxidermist who can do cassowaries as I want them & it would take any fresh man 3 or 4 years to learn how to do it & meanwhile the chance of many fine specimens would be permanently lost as after my monograph has appeared no one will try again to procure all the cassowaries alive.68

Meanwhile, in 1910 Hartert targeted Frohawk and declared that merely applying colour to mounts according to sketches was “not art” and that Frohawk's rates were too high.69 Evidently, Rothschild did not share his opinion, and his financial independence meant he could employ the expertise he deemed necessary to achieve the quality of display he desired for his museum.

The combined effort of Rothschild, Keulemans, Doggett, and Frohawk was publicly commended. In 1896, the Sporting Gazette reported that “A remarkable collection of cassowaries—probably the most perfectly preserved specimens in the world” had been sent to Tring Museum, and that Doggett was to “be congratulated upon the success of his delicate work.”70 Arguably, it was Rothschild's opinion that mattered most and, ahead of the publication of his monograph, he declared that “we succeeded in modelling Cassowaries so true to life that a photograph from the mounted specimen was barely distinguishable from one taken from life.”71 There could be no doubt that, with the assistance of Keulemans, Doggett, and Frohawk, Rothschild had achieved his aim of devising a method that would rid museums of their “ghastly” cassowaries—a method underpinned by access to live cassowaries.

At the same time as acquiring live cassowaries to perfect the art of their display in his museum, Rothschild used those same specimens as the basis for his taxonomic work. This started in 1896 when Rothschild began preparing material for A Monograph of the Genus Casuarius (1900),produced in collaboration with zoologist W. P. Pycraft (1868–1942). Rothschild's ambition for the monograph was “to insert everything, anatomically, zoologically, and biologically, known up to the present date.”72 It included 18 illustrative coloured plates by Keulemans, the majority of which were life drawings of Rothschild's cassowaries in Tring Park and London Zoo. The Monograph was followed by a series of articles, half of which featured the description of a new species or subspecies of cassowary.73 For this was Rothschild's chief concern—the “diagnosis” of cassowary specimens.74

As in his other taxonomic work, Rothschild's work on cassowaries was guided by principles of Darwinian evolution and the prioritisation of geographical variation. Rothschild and his curators subscribed to the theory of evolution based on the principles of natural selection, and chose to foreground geographical variation in their research, believing that geographical variation and the identification of subspecies were key to understanding evolutionary development.75 They acquired long series of specimens—each labelled with accurate locality information, date of collection, and the name of its collector—and described the relationships between species using trinomial nomenclature, with the third name used to designate geographical varieties or subspecies. For example, Giraffa camelopardalis rothschildi. Hartert and Jordan were particularly influenced by ideas originating from Germany, where they began their scientific careers and where “biology” became a problem-based and theoretically driven field of study much earlier than in Britain. They were strongly influenced by what Nyhart has termed “the biological perspective” pursued by “scientific zoologists” who focused on “function, emphasising relationships among organisms, their physical environment, and their geographical and ecological place in the world.”76

Yet, while Rothschild's curators generally viewed species limits as “wide”—meaning that they downplayed taxonomic differences, sorting specimens into fewer larger categories and increasingly deploying the subspecies concept to subcategorise under the species level—when it came to cassowaries, Rothschild conceived species and subspecies limits as narrow, the smallest difference justifying a specimen's description as something new.77 This significant departure from the epistemological approach deployed elsewhere at his museum is indicative of another underlying motive that propelled Rothschild's later taxonomic work on cassowaries—his ambition to sustain a reputation. Initially, this reputation was based on the quantity of material he acquired and his publication of the Monograph. However, to sustain his status as an authority, Rothschild arguably needed to be seen as continuing to contribute to knowledge of the species, and he did so by continuing to name “new” forms based on differences he observed in his live birds.

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Figure 4: Casuarius unappendiculatus aurantiacus. From A Monograph of the Genus Casuarius (Plate XXXII), by L. W. Rothschild & W. P. Pycraft, 1900, London, UK: Zoological Society of London. Reproduced with permission of the Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London.

Rothschild determined “new” species and subspecies of cassowary based on several factors. Firstly, the physical differences between unclassified birds and those with existing classifications, such as casque and wattle size, bird mass, but particularly head and neck colour. For example:

Casuarius casuarius lateralis …. This form is nearest to C.c.altijugus Scl. but differs by the small amount of orange-red on the lower hind-neck, by the entirely blue lower sides of the neck, and the red colour along the muscles which run up to each side of the gape only extends about half-way up towards the gap.78

The importance Rothschild placed on the coloration of cassowaries is as evident in his taxonomic descriptions as it is in his work on the preparation of specimens. Coloration was the focal point of his descriptions and he frequently used it to justify a cassowary's classification as a “new” form, even when he might have only observed the smallest of differences between two birds.

These comparisons were aided by Rothschild's possession of live cassowaries. While many taxonomists were restricted to working on prepared skins, informed by anecdotal evidence and field collectors' notes, Rothschild was able to compare live birds side-by-side and to use those observations to dispute the descriptions of previous zoologists. In 1899, for example, Rothschild challenged ornithologist Tommaso Salvadori's (1835–1923) classification of Casuarius casuarius sclateri,which he had “sunk” as a synonym of Casuarius casuarius beccarii.Rothschild asserted:

this is not right, though I cannot blame Count Salvadori for his decision, as he had only dead specimens to compare. Anyone who saw the two birds alive, and side by side, as I have done, would not hesitate a moment to say they were separate geographical races. C. casuarius beccarii is confined to Vokan Island, Aru Islands, while C. casuarius sclateri is confined to the south and south-east of the mainland of New Guinea. Through the confounding of these two forms of C. casuarius, it has been declared by all authors that C. casuarius beccarii was a most variable form; in reality, however, it is most constant, while C. casuarius sclateri is variable in size and shape, not only of the bird itself, but also of the casque and wattles. As regards the birds themselves, when alive, the shape and contour are totally different.79

This example demonstrates the importance of live cassowaries to Rothschild's research, but also how his conclusions were informed by geographical location. In this instance, Rothschild determined that Casuarius casuarius sclateri and Casuarius casuarius beccarii were distinct because of the different regions they were reported to inhabit. He applied the principle of geographical variation to support the morphological variations he witnessed in his live birds, observations he then used to challenge the work of his contemporaries. In this, he was influenced not just by geographical variation, but by another shared interest with Darwin—islands and endemic species. Rothschild expected to find and identify multiple forms of cassowary because of their inhabitation of the islands of New Guinea, and thus their apparent geographical isolation. That expectation was then seemingly realised when Rothschild acquired live cassowaries that displayed an array of morphological variation and that were said to be confined to particular locations.

Finally, Rothschild's classifications were also informed by his behavioural observations. When first describing “Casuarius bennetti maculatus, subsp. nov.,” Rothschild added his observation, “it seems to be a male, and is not so wild as my specimens of true C. bennetti usually were.”80 In this example, Rothschild used his knowledge of the temperaments of living birds kept in his zoo to further support his rationale for declaring a “new” subspecies. Seemingly any observed difference—morphological or behavioural—was sufficient justification for taxonomic division in Rothschild's opinion, and enabled him to continue to add to existing discourse on cassowaries. As previously discussed, the naming of species was a form of “social capital,” and in this instance, Rothschild's naming of “new” forms of cassowary demonstrated his apparent taxonomic expertise and contributed to his emerging status as an authority on the birds.

However, while Rothschild had lots of cassowaries to study, owing to his systematic search for and importation of them, the methods he applied to their classification, which saw him determine new forms based on minor morphological variations, meant he did not have the usual series of specimens upon which to evidence a new species or subspecies. In fact, Rothschild described several new subspecies from a single specimen.81 This was a significant diversion from his museum's core principle that conclusions must be based “on as much material as possible.”82 Evidently, Rothschild's enthusiasm for cassowaries led him to abandon some of the scientific rigour which defined the work of his museum.

This departure is evident elsewhere in Rothschild's work on cassowaries. For example, his descriptions of “new” species or subspecies were often based on immature birds rather than a collection with a representative age-span. Despite Rothschild keeping live birds in his zoo to ensure they developed into adult plumage for his classificatory work, they did not always live to maturity, and on more than one occasion Rothschild described a new species or subspecies from a chick or young bird.83 Of Casuarius roseigularis,Rothschild wrote:

This species cannot be described so fully as could be wished, for the bird died the day after arrival. It is a young bird in brown plumage; but the colour of the naked parts is quite pronounced enough to distinguish it from all other species of the genus.84

Similarly, Rothschild made conclusions based on specimens for which the locality data was not always accurate or known. As Rothschild stated, there was often “uncertainty about the localities of the living specimens that are brought to Europe” as “Living Cassowaries come into the hands of European dealers in so many round-about ways.”85 Uncertainty about place of origin made (and continues to make) cassowaries hard to study and is a problem compounded by centuries of inter-island trading, which has likely caused interbreeding and intermediate forms.86 But this did not prevent Rothschild from continuing his work. He was known to describe a specimen as “new” even if he knew it might in time prove to be an example of another species. In his description of “Casuarius bennetti maculatus, subsp. nov” (based on a single adult specimen living in London Zoo) Rothschild noted:

This form may eventually prove to be only a colour-aberration of C. bennetti; but, so long as we do not know the exact habitat of every species and subspecies of Cassowary, and the full extent of their individual variation, I consider it right to name and describe this bird as a subspecies of C. bennetti.87

This approach necessarily required Rothschild to later review some of his classifications. At a meeting of the British Ornithologists' Club in 1913, for example, Rothschild informed members of how he “had recently re-examined the type-specimen of the Cassowary which he named Casuarius mitratus,” concluding that “it must be given full specific rank. His error … due to the fact that when the description was drawn up the bird was alive, and had not reached its full growth and colour.”88 Revisions of previous conclusions did not necessarily undermine Rothschild's expertise. By reviewing earlier conclusions in light of new material coming into his possession, Rothschild continued to partake in the discourse on cassowaries, thereby further demonstrating his expertise. Taxonomy here was less about a search for biological reality than it was a mechanism of power used by Rothschild to carve out a specialist area for himself.89

Owing to the sizeable financial investment Rothschild made in the study of cassowaries, there were a limited number of people who could challenge his taxonomic investigations. One exception was Rothschild's own curator, Hartert. In his introduction to cassowaries in “Types of Birds in the Tring Museum,” Hartert concluded that “Only by much more faithful labour in many places can our knowledge of these birds be considerably advanced.”90 Hartert's caution suggests his awareness of the implications of Rothschild's diversion from the museum's usual epistemological approach, but this ultimately did little to subvert Rothschild's reputation as an expert on the species.

By the time of his death in 1937, Rothschild had described 19 forms of cassowary and had all the types in his collection.91 Today, however, only three species stand, and all the forms described by Rothschild have been reduced to synonymy. This happened shortly after Rothschild's death in 1940, when Ernst Mayr (1904–2005) of the American Museum of Natural History reviewed the group.92 While Rothschild's work on cassowaries has subsequently come under scrutiny, during his lifetime his ability to acquire and study large numbers of living cassowaries enabled him to make what his contemporaries perceived to be a significant contribution to zoology. In 1906, in recognition of his work on cassowaries, Rothschild received a medal from the Société nationale d'acclimatation de France, of which he had been a member since 1890.93 In 1911, the Monograph was still being heralded by Pocock as “the standard work on the group,” and in 1912 he described Rothschild as “the greatest living authority on the cassowary.”94 Even in 1926, two and a half decades after the monograph was published, Rothschild was still deemed an authority.95 Rothschild owed this status to his live birds.

For Rothschild, keeping live birds in his private zoo was fundamental to his study of cassowaries and informed two aspects of his zoological work: their display in his museum's public galleries, and his taxonomic work on the genus. Crucially, access to live cassowaries allowed Rothschild to overcome what he perceived to be the main obstacle that had hindered many previous zoologists, for it meant he could study the distinctive colouration of their heads and necks, which he believed was key to determining species and subspecies of cassowary, but that disappeared after death. Rothschild was then able to use those birds to present living evidence to support his classifications of cassowaries, which gave him authority among his contemporaries and established him as an expert on the genus.

That said, Rothschild's work on cassowaries was a collaborative endeavour. To achieve his goals, Rothschild enlisted specialist support throughout each stage of the process: the dealers and collectors involved in the cassowary's acquisition, the animal keepers and zoo owners who advised on their keep and care, and the artists, illustrators, and preparators involved in the preservation of their unique physicality. Rothschild may have gained the notoriety, but this episode highlights the valuable contributions to taxonomic study made by individuals beyond those named in the scientific papers.

Furthermore, Rothschild's work on cassowaries was unusual in that his keep of the live birds was motivated by taxonomy rather than a desire to keep them alive, as was the goal of most scientific work within zoos during the early 20th century. It also meant that Rothschild's zoo was unusually situated across three sites, each facilitating that research in different ways. Tring Park and London Zoo provided Rothschild with somewhere to keep and observe his birds, while Doggett's keep of live birds informed his taxidermy practice. This poses an interesting question about the role of the zoo in supporting taxonomic research more widely, and how this potentially shaped relationships between zoos and other institutions and individuals. In this example, there was an unusually close relationship between Rothschild's museum and zoo, as the animals that entered the zoo were predestined for an afterlife in his museum's collection, and the zoo was used as a site in which to mould the living animals' body in preparation for that afterlife.

Ultimately, the quantity of material Rothschild was able to procure and study has been a hindrance to his reputational legacy. The more living birds Rothschild acquired, the more minor morphological variations he observed and the more species and subspecies he believed he was able to identify. This situation was compounded by the impact of the lack of accurate locality data, which further gave the impression of more species and subspecies, as similar-looking cassowaries were reported to inhabit different regions. The unusual morphological characteristics of the cassowary therefore undermined the long-term validity of Rothschild's taxonomic work on cassowaries, yet there is no doubt that in the early 20th century, Rothschild's private zoo and ability to keep hundreds of live birds for the purposes of study underpinned his status as “the greatest living authority on the cassowary.”96

1 “London Letter: Cassowaries” (1926, p. 8).

2 Aflalo (1901, pp. 79–80); “The Hertfordshire Zoo” (1901, p. 3).

3 Warren (1956, p. 48). Those 19 forms have since all been reduced to synonymy. Today scientists recognise only three extant species of cassowary.

4 “London Letter: Cassowaries” (1926, p. 8).

5 Ritvo (1987, p. 205); Ritvo (1997, pp. 15–16).

6 Flack (2018, p. 14).

7 For example, Hochadel (2005; 2011); Ash (2018); Woods (2018).

8 Alberti (2012, pp. 4–5).

9 Alberti (2012, p. 5).

10 Would (2021, p. 26).

11 Davies (2002, p. 3).

12 L. W. Rothschild & Pycraft (1900, p. 115).

13 “A Bird of Freedom” (1905, p. 4).

14 Scherren (1909, p. 1172); “Opening of Barnum's Show” (1889, p. 6).

15 Plumb (2010, pp. 221–222).

16 Olsen (2010, pp. 5–7); Ritvo (1997, pp. 5–6); Hochadel (2022).

17 Cowley & Huber (2000, pp. 3–32).

18 L. W. Rothschild & Pycraft (1900, p. 110).

19 Larsson (2020).

20 Aflalo (1901, pp. 79–80); “The Hertfordshire Zoo” (1901, p. 3).

21 Ritvo (1987, p. 242).

22 Simons (2012, p. 16).

23 “The Hon. Walter Rothschild's Natural History Collection” (1893, p. 8).

24 Burkhardt (1999, p. 490).

25 Nyhart (2009, p. 108); Hochadel (2011, pp. 184–185, 209–210).

26 “The Hertfordshire Zoo” (1901, p. 3).

27 “Morning Calls” (1896, p. 216); M. Rothschild (1983, p. 102).

28 Jordan (1938, p. 3). Lord Battersea was married to Constance de Rothschild, the cousin of Walter Rothschild's father, Nathan Mayer Rothschild, 1st Baron Rothschild (1840–1915).

29 L. W. Rothschild (1899a, p. 773).

30 M. Rothschild (1983, pp. xxii–xxiii).

31 L. W. Rothschild (1899a, p. 773).

32 L. W. Rothschild (1899a, pp. 773–774).

33 L. W. Rothschild & Pycraft (1900, p. 109).

34 L. W. Rothschild to P. L. Sclater [Letter] (1898, May 22), GB 0814 BADR/22/5/1898, Archives of the Zoological Society of London, London, UK (hereafter ZSL).

35 Ash (2018, p. 420).

36 L. W. Rothschild (1937, pp. 120–121).

37 Cassowaries were mostly imported as chicks or young birds. Their capture typically involved the male, who raises the chicks, being shot and his brood of chicks rounded up: L. W. Rothschild (1899a, p. 776).

38 “In Chambers Journal” (1901, p. 3).

39 F. Doggett to L. W. Rothschild [Letter] (1908, Mar. 28), TR1/1/29/168, Tring Museum Correspondence, Natural History Museum, London, UK (hereafter NHM).

40 L. W. Rothschild (1904, pp. 38–40).

41 McOuat (2001, p. 2).

42 L. W. Rothschild to P. L. Sclater [Letter] (1898, May 22), GB 0814 BADR/22/5/1898, ZSL.

43 “Wild Beast Photography” (1890, pp. 1–2); Wire (1903, p. 7).

44 M. Rothschild (1983, pp. 102–104).

45 L. W. Rothschild (1904, p. 39).

46 Larsson (2021).

47 “The Zoological Gardens” (1900, p. 2).

48 While Rothschild referenced his observations in correspondence and papers, it is unclear how often he visited the zoological gardens. Fellows' visits were not regularly recorded in the “Daily Occurrences.”

49 L. W. Rothschild to A. Thomson [Letter] (1899, Jan. 29), GB 0814 BADR/29/1/1899, ZSL.

50 “Australians at Tring Park” (1899, p. 267).

51 Rothschild (1899a, p. 773).

52 Register of Deaths in the Menagerie (1900, Jul. 18), GB 0814 RCA, ZSL.

53 L. W. Rothschild to F. Doggett [Letter] (1908, Jan. 13), TR1/1/29/168, NHM.

54 Hochadel (2005, p. 41); Alberti (2012). While several chapters document animals transitioning from the zoo to the museum, in most cases the animal's fate was decided only after its death.

55 Ward (1913, p. 76).

56 Would (2021, p. 26).

57 F. Doggett to Tring Museum [Letter] (1908, Feb. 11), TR1/1/29/168, NHM.

58 F. Doggett to E. Hartert [Letter] (1908, Jun. 13), TR1/1/29/168, NHM; F. Doggett to Tring Museum [Letter] (1908, Feb. 11), TR1/1/29/168, NHM.

59 F. Doggett to L. W. Rothschild [Letter] (1908, Feb. 7), TR1/1/29/168, NHM.

60 F. Doggett to Tring Museum [Letter] (1908, Mar. 28); C. Hagenbeck to F. Doggett [Letter] (1908, Apr. 4); F. Doggett to Tring Museum [Letter] (1908, May 9); Doggett to Tring Museum [Letter] (1908, May 25), TR1/1/29/168, NHM.

61 Haraway (1984); Alberti (2012); Jones (2016, pp. 714–715).

62 Flack (2018, p. 15).

63 F. W. Frohawk to E. Hartert [Letter] (1910, Mar. 3), TR1/1/31/207, NHM.

64 Taxidermy did not render the organic animal matter inert; degradation and decay occurred. See Would (2021, pp. 5, 21).

65 “Natural History Column: The Cassowary” (1899, p. 7).

66 This conversion was made using the Bank of England Inflation Calculator (https://www.bankofengland.co.uk/monetary-policy/inflation/inflation-calculator) and the year 1900.

67 Even during Rothschild's significant financial retrenchment in 1908, he continued to purchase large numbers of cassowaries.

68 L. W. Rothschild to E. Hartert [Letter] (1899, Jun. 1), TM3/12, NHM.

69 E. Hartert to F.W Frohawk [Letter] (1910, Mar. 1), TR1/1/31/207, NHM.

70 “A Remarkable Collection of Cassowaries” (1896, p. 1110).

71 L. W. Rothschild (1899a, p. 773).

72 L. W. Rothschild (1899a, p. 776).

73 Over two-thirds of these articles were published in the Bulletin of the British Ornithologists' Club, a key publication in which ornithologists throughout this period could publish their findings. It was edited by leading British ornithologists such as Richard Bowdler Sharpe and William Ogilvie Grant, most of whom were curators at the British Museum (Natural History).

74 L. W. Rothschild to P. Sclater [Letter] (1898, May 26), GB 0814 BADR/25/4/1898, ZSL.

75 Larsson (2020).

76 Nyhart (2009, pp. 22–23).

77 Kohler (2006, p. 242).

78 Hartert (1927, p. 34).

79 L. W. Rothschild (1899b, p. 75).

80 L. W. Rothschild & Pycraft (1900, p. 148).

81 See, for example, L. W. Rothschild & Pycraft (1900, p. 137).

82 Hartert (1907, p. 269).

83 L. W. Rothschild (1905, p. 32); L. W. Rothschild (1904, p. 39).

84 L. W. Rothschild (1905, p. 32).

85 L. W. Rothschild & Pycraft (1900, p. 109); L. W. Rothschild (1914, p. 5).

86 Perron (2016, pp. 2–3, 7).

87 L. W. Rothschild & Pycraft (1900, p. 148).

88 L. W. Rothschild (1913, p. 34).

89 Haraway (1984, p. 52).

90 Hartert (1927, p. 34).

91 Warren (1956, p. 48).

92 Davies (2002, p. 229).

93 “The Duchess of Bedford” (1906, p. 7).

94 Pocock (1911, p. 775); Pocock (1912, p. 743).

95 “London Letter: Cassowaries” (1926, p. 8).

96 Pocock (1912, p. 743); Pocock (1911, p. 775).

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I would like to offer my sincere thanks to Oliver Hochadel and Miquel Carandell Baruzzi for inviting me to be a part of this exciting special issue. They, together with my fellow contributors, have been incredibly generous with their time, guidance, and feedback, for which I am most grateful. I would also like to thank the peer reviewers for their constructive and insightful comments. Particular thanks go to Helen Cowie and Katherine McLeod, together with Felicity McWilliams, Alison Skipper, and Zöe Varley for their comments on drafts of the manuscript, and to Hellen Pethers and Kathryn Rooke of the Library and Archives of the Natural History Museum, London for their assistance with source materials.

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Centaurus


Centaurus

Journal of the European Society for the History of Science

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