Study Nature, Not Books: Cockerell and the Amateur Naturalist

Author:  Barton Melissa
Institution:  Geology
Date:  November 2005

"It is an open question whether it is wise to occupy oneself with many different lines of research. Certainly this variety gives one a broader point of view and is valuable as a background for teaching. Probably the same methods are not suitable for all, but I have noticed that those who stick to a single subject are apt to attain a rigidity of mind which may give a comfortable assurance of competence, but does not permit much originality."

-Theodore Dru Alison Cockerell, Recollections of a Naturalist, I (1935)

Figure 1. T.D.A. Cockerell. Image Courtesy: University of Colorado Museum of Natural History.

Figure 1. T.D.A. Cockerell. Image Courtesy: University of Colorado Museum of Natural History.

"Cockerell pursued Louis Agassiz's suggestion: study of nature, not books," says Richard Beidleman, Professor Emeritus of Ecology at Colorado College. "He was a one-man Chautauqua institution." A Chautauqua is a traveling adult education exhibit involving lectures, plays, and musical performances – an uncannily apt description, given Theodore Dru Alison Cockerell's forays into playwriting and poetry as well as science and politics.

Few modern students of science, much less members of the general public, have heard of T.D.A. Cockerell, a Victorian naturalist who, with no college degrees, became a professor at the University of Colorado and published an impressive 3,904 scientific papers, essays, volumes of verse, and memoirs.

Cockerell's main field of research was entomology, particularly the study of bees and scale insects, but he studied topics as diverse as the fossil flora and fauna of Florissant, Colorado, the genetics of the red sunflower, and fish scale morphology. One of Cockerell's long-term interests was natural selection – he was an early and ardent supporter of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. In addition to his scientific efforts, Cockerell wrote plays, poetry, and essays on social and educational issues.

People like Cockerell are increasingly rare. The stunning amount of new information that modern science compiles daily compels specialization. Cockerell wrote in 1937, "I have found that a certain amount of botanical knowledge is extremely useful, almost indispensable perhaps, to a zoologist. In the early days, when there used to be professors of Natural Philosophy, it appeared natural to study both plants and animals." Today, too many scientists know little outside of their research focus.

"I think it's a shame," says Beidleman. "Some of the best scientists have really broad interests."

Figure 2. Shale and tuff at Florissant, Colorado. Cockerell spent many years studying the delicate insect and plant fossils preserved in these Eocene lake shales at Florissant.

Figure 2. Shale and tuff at Florissant, Colorado. Cockerell spent many years studying the delicate insect and plant fossils preserved in these Eocene lake shales at Florissant.

Cockerell is remembered now by a few scientists of his generation – Beidleman, William Weber of the University of Colorado, and a handful of others.

Modern science can find much inspiration in the life and writings of T.D.A. Cockerell: his boundless enthusiasm for the entire natural world, his commitment to educating the public and encouraging amateurs to contribute to science, and his early anticipation of modern educational techniques.

Losing Sight of History

Taxonomy, the science of classifying organisms and elucidating their evolutionary connections, has fallen into disrepute. Often, interpreters of science for the public speak of nineteenth and early twentieth century science as being "just taxonomy," with the implication that taxonomy isn't real science.

But taxonomy forms the basis of modern biology. Where would we be without Linneaus and his system of classification?

"Biochemists, doctors, policy makers, conservation biologists, agriculturists, etc. all have to ask seemingly simple, but actually quite complex, questions before they can proceed with any aspect of their work: what is this, where does it live, and what does it do?" says Michael Engels, Associate Professor of Paleoentomology at the University of Kansas and Curator of Entomology at the KU Natural History Museum. "If we do not know that it exists and what it is, then we never know to ask further questions."

Along with disregard of taxonomy comes an ignorance of scientific history, which makes it easy to laugh at the now disproved theories of past scientists without understanding their historical context. Few students of science are as familiar with Jean-Baptiste Lamarck or Louis Agassiz – scientists who contributed enormously to biology, even as they held beliefs now known to be false – as the scientists of Cockerell's generation were.

"Study Nature, Not Books"

The nineteenth century Swiss-born naturalist, Louis Agassiz once said, "Study nature, not books." This approach to science education characterized Cockerell's approach as well.

"T.D.A. Cockerell believed in getting in there, getting your hands dirty, and doing the science," Beidleman says. "I've read a lot of his publications. I was so impressed by a lot of the things Cockerell wrote about biology education, biology in society...if those were published [in a book], I'd make every biology major read them."

Figure 3. Cockerell's grave in Boulder, Colorado, is inscribed: "Naturalist – Humanitarian – Teacher" to pay homage to the many facets of his life.

Figure 3. Cockerell's grave in Boulder, Colorado, is inscribed: "Naturalist – Humanitarian – Teacher" to pay homage to the many facets of his life.

Cockerell's teaching style was notoriously random. He taught what interested him, rather than a basic curriculum. Hugo Rodeck, Director Emeritus of the University of Colorado Museum, remembers that Cockerell's students had to learn the basics from textbooks. Despite this, the infectious enthusiasm and breadth of knowledge Cockerell brought to his students conveyed something more important than easily looked-up facts. Cockerell insisted that his students get down on their hands and knees to look for insects. He believed that average people could and should actively study the natural history about them.

However, some criticized Cockerell's teaching methods. In 1920, the University of Colorado Board of Regents reprimanded Cockerell for his insistence on allowing "immature and unprepared undergraduates," as they put it, to "attempt research."

"It has often been remarked that those who go into the graduate school frequently show a singular inability to do independent work...Efforts are now being made to mitigate the evil by independent study in the senior and perhaps junior years," Cockerell wrote in 1935. Cockerell's words were prescient. Today, the undergraduate research experience has become almost mandatory for students who wish to continue on to graduate studies.

Writing as Communication

Cockerell did not consider the written word or the lecture useless, however. His copious publications, many of them popular, show that he saw writing as an important form of communication, particularly to students and the public.

"I am by no means sure, however, that I have not taught more effectively by the printed than the spoken word," Cockerell wrote in 1935. "The teaching voice is now silent, but the written and printed work continues to seek its audience in all parts of the world. Like the light of the stars, it will arrive as if new, when perhaps the original source is no longer luminous."

Cockerell's writings remain inspirational today.

"When I went through 'Valley of the Second Sons' [a collection of Cockerell's letters], I got ideas for things to do on every page," Beidleman says.

Then and now, many scientists look down upon popularization of science, citing misrepresentation by the press, oversimplification of complex concepts, and too much sensationalism.

Beidleman was involved in the creation of the Biological Sciences Curriculum, a non-profit biology curriculum for high school and college students. "I was on the writing team for the Green Version, which was ecological. We were working on this biology textbook and it was criticized because it was too fun to read, so it couldn't really be scientific." This view echoes the experience of William Weber, who was told by several scientists not to include Cockerell's popular-press publications in a bio-bibliography of Cockerell published by the University of Colorado. This attitude is not uncommon and it results in dense, dull, confusing textbooks and lectures that may turn students away from science at a young age. Involving students in the actual process of science is key to producing the next generation of scientists.

Cherishing the Amateur

Cockerell often used the word "amateur" to describe himself and other scientists, including Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-developer of the theory of natural selection. Cockerell used the word not in its current sense as a non-professional, but in its older sense, as a lover or admirer of a subject.

"Cockerell tells you to pursue your curiosity as an avocation if you can't be a professional scientist," Beidleman says.

In 1919, Cockerell wrote, "I think we should in America regard the amateur, and give him a chance to cooperate in large undertakings. In this period of reconstruction, science must be our guiding star; but in the struggle for wealth and power, science is in peril." Many Victorians, both men and women, were amateur naturalists. It was not unheard-of for these amateurs to correspond with professional scientists, publish scientific papers, and present at the meetings of scientific societies.

In the twentieth century, science was for a long time the sole domain of the professional. Recently, museums and other organizations, such as the Earthwatch Institute, have provided opportunities for volunteers to become involved in real science.

The Denver Museum of Nature and Science has a particularly successful volunteer program in palaeontology. As of 2000, volunteers have published 25 abstracts and sixteen papers with museum staff. On fourteen of the papers, the volunteers were the primary authors.

Figure 4. Cockerell was one of the founders of the University of Colorado Museum, which remains an important research and education facility today.

Figure 4. Cockerell was one of the founders of the University of Colorado Museum, which remains an important research and education facility today.

It is clear that amateurs can contribute significantly to science, although training and guidance are often necessary. Funding for most areas of science are dropping, particularly for museums, and amateur volunteers will become increasingly crucial to scientific progress if this trend continues.

Cockerell's enthusiasm for natural history carried into retirement. "Even as an old man, when I knew him, he was still doing his research," Beidleman says.

In 1935, after listing some elderly and active scientists, Cockerell wrote, "In some cases the most productive years are those beyond the ostensible retiring age."

Both the amateur and professional scientist can continue their work into retirement and many still do today. Retirement can even provide the opportunity to leave one's narrow professional field and become more of a generalist, like the great Victorian naturalists.

While specialization is valuable and necessary to modern science, it would be a shame to lose all the naturalists, with their broad, humanistic interests, by the wayside.

Further Reading

"The American Cockerell: A Naturalist's Life, 1866-1948," ed. William A. Weber, F.L.S.

"The Valley of the Second Sons: Letters of Theodore Dru Alison Cockerell, a young English naturalist, writing to his sweetheart and her brother about his life in West Cliff, Wet Mountain Valley, Colorado 1887-1890," ed. William A. Weber, F.L.S.

"Theodore Dru Alison Cockerell, 1866-1948," University of Colorado Studies, Series in Bibliography, No. 1, ed. William A. Weber.

"CU Museum: Cockerell Connection,"

"Insect Outlaws of New Mexico's Past (and the men who hunted them)," Rena Larañaga, New Mexico State University,


The Denver Museum of Nature and Science,

"Museum volunteers earn right to important finds," Eric S. Elkins,,

"Museum provides accessibility to hobbyists," Travis O. Pryor, The Casper Star Tribune,