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Bird was born in Boroughbridge in 1831 and grew up in Tattenhall, Cheshire. As her father Edward was a Church of England minister, the family moved several times across Britain as he received different parish postings, most notably in 1848 when he was replaced as vicar of St. Thomas' when his parishioners objected to the style of his ministry.
Bird was a sickly child and spent her entire life struggling with various diseases. She mentions her health troubles at least six different times in letters to her sister, sent during her six-month stay in Hawaii. Her real desire was to travel. In 1854, Bird's father gave her £100 and she went to visit relatives in America. She was allowed to stay until her money ran out. She detailed the journey anonymously in her first book The Englishwoman in America, published in 1856. The following year, she went to Canada and then toured Scotland.
Time spent in Britain always seemed to make her ill and, following her mother's death in 1868, she embarked on a series of excursions to avoid settling permanently with her sister Henrietta (Henny) on the Isle of Mull. Bird could not endure her sister's domestic lifestyle, preferring instead to support further travels through writing. Many of her works are compiled from letters she wrote home to her sister in Scotland.
Bird finally left Britain in 1872, going first to Australia, which she disliked, and then to Hawaii (known in Europe as the Sandwich Islands), her love for which prompted her second book (published three years later). While there she climbed Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. She then moved on to Colorado, then the newest member of the United States, where she had heard the air was excellent for the infirm. Dressed practically and riding not sidesaddle but frontwards like a man (though she threatened to sue the Times for saying she dressed like one), she covered over 800 miles in the Rocky Mountains in 1873. Her letters to her sister, first printed in the magazine Leisure Hour, comprised her fourth and perhaps most famous book, A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains.
Bird's time in the Rockies was enlivened especially by her acquaintance with Jim Nugent, "Rocky Mountain Jim", a textbook outlaw with one eye and an affinity for violence and poetry. "A man any woman might love but no sane woman would marry," Bird declared in a section excised from her letters before their publication. Nugent also seemed captivated by the independent-minded Bird, but she ultimately left the Rockies and her "dear desperado." Nugent was shot dead less than a year later.
At home, Bird again found herself pursued, this time by John Bishop, an Edinburgh doctor in his thirties. Predictably ill, she went traveling again, this time to Asia: Japan, China, Vietnam, Singapore and Malaysia. Yet when her sister died of typhoid in 1880, Isabella was heartbroken and finally accepted Bishop's marriage proposal. Her health took a severe turn for the worse but recovered by Bishop's own death in 1886. Feeling that her earlier travels had been hopelessly dilettante, Bird studied medicine and resolved to travel as a missionary. Despite her nearly sixty years of age, she set off for India.
Arriving on the subcontinent in February 1889, Bird visited missions in India, visited Ladakh on the borders of Tibet, and then traveled in Persia, Kurdistan and Turkey. The following year she joined a group of British soldiers travelling between Baghdad and Tehran. She remained with the unit's commanding officer during his survey work in the region, armed with her revolver and a medicine chest supplied – in possibly an early example of corporate sponsorship – by Henry Wellcome's company in London.
Featured in journals and magazines for decades, Bird was by now something of a household name. In 1892, she became the first woman inducted into the Royal Geographical Society. She was elected to membership of the Royal Photographic Society on 12 January 1897. Her final great journey took place in 1897 where she travelled up the Yangtze and Han rivers which are in China and Korea, respectively. Later still, she went to Morocco, where she travelled among the Berbers and had to use a ladder to mount her black stallion, a gift from the Sultan. She died in Edinburgh within a few months of her return in 1904, just shy of her seventy-third birthday. She was still planning another trip to China.
"There never was anybody," wrote the Spectator, "who had adventures as well as Miss Bird." In 1982, Caryl Churchill used her as a character in her play Top Girls. Much of the dialogue written by Churchill comes from Bird's own writings.
In 2006, Bird was featured in Bedrock: Writers on the Wonders of Geology edited by Lauret E. Savoy, Eldridge M. Moores, and Judith E. Moores (Trinity University Press) which looks at writing over the years and how it pays tribute to the Earth and its geological features.
|Library resources about
|By Isabella Bird|
- The Englishwoman in America (1856)
- The aspects of religion in the United States of America (1859)
- Pen and Pencil Sketches Among The Outer Hebrides (published in The Leisure Hour) (1866)
- Notes on Old Edinburgh (1869)
- The Hawaiian Archipelago (1875)
- The Two Atlantics (published in The Leisure Hour) (1876)
- Australia Felix: Impressions of Victoria and Melbourne (published in The Leisure Hour) (1877)
- A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains (1879) 
- Unbeaten Tracks in Japan (1880) Volume 1
- Sketches In The Malay Peninsula (published in The Leisure Hour) (1883)
- The Golden Chersonese and the Way Thither New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1883  at A Celebration of Women Writers
- A Pilgrimage To Sinai (published in The Leisure Hour) (1886)
- Journeys in Persia and Kurdistan (1891) Volume 1
- Among the Tibetans (1894) Available online from the University of Adelaide, Australia.
- Korea and her Neighbours (1898)  Volume 1 Volume 2
- The Yangtze Valley and Beyond (1899)
- Chinese Pictures: notes on photographs made in China (New York : C. L. Bowman, 1900)
- Notes on Morocco (published in the Monthly Review) (1901)
- Our Amazing Planet Staff (30 April 2012). "8 Unsung Women Explorers". LiveScience.com. Retrieved 30 April 2012.
- Isabella Bird, Biographical Note, The Hawaiian Archipelago, eBooks, (2004), i.
- Luke Gartlan: A complete Craze: Isabella Bird Bishop in East Asia, in PhotoResearcher [Vienna: ESHPh], no. 15, April 2011 (p. 13-26), ISSN 0958-2606
- Carole Glauber, Isabella Bird Bishop: Korea, the Yangtze Valley, and Beyond, Photo Review, Summer 2002.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Isabella Bird.|
|Wikisource has the text of the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica article Bishop, Isabella.|
- Works written by or about Isabella Lucy Bird at Wikisource
- Essays by Isabella Bird at Quotidiana.org
- Works by Isabella Bird listed at The Online Books Page
- Works by Isabella Bird at Project Gutenberg
- Isabella L. Bird public domain audiobooks from LibriVox
- Works at the Victorian Women Writers Project
- Works by Bird at Open Library.
- Isabella Lucy Bird (1898), Korea and Her Neighbours: A Narrative of Travel, with an Account of the Recent Vicissitudes and Present Position of the Country
- Short radio script, Bear Encounter at California Legacy Project
- Bird, Isabella. "Unbeaten Tracks in Japan: The Firsthand Experiences of a British Woman in Outback Japan in 1878". Japan & Stuff Press (2006). ISBN 4-9902848-0-1.