Isabella Bird

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Isabella Bird

Isabella Lucy Bird married name Bishop (1831 – 1904) was a nineteenth-century English explorer, writer,[1] photographer [2] and naturalist.[3] With Fanny Jane Butler she founded the John Bishop Memorial hospital in Srinagar.[4] She was the first woman to be elected Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.[5]

Early life[edit]

Bird was born on 15 October 1831 at Boroughbridge Hall, Yorkshire, the home of her maternal grandmother. Her parents were the Reverend Edward Bird and his second wife Dora Lawson.[1]
Isabella moved several times during her childhood. Boroughbridge was her father's first curacy after taking orders in 1830, and it was here he met Dora. In 1832, Reverend Bird was appointed curate in Maidenhead where Isabella's brother, Edward was born and died in his first year.
As a result of her father's ill health the family moved again in 1834 to Tattenhall[6] in Cheshire, - a living presented to him by his cousin Dr John Bird Sumner, Bishop of Chester where in the same year Isabella's sister, Henrietta, was born.
Isabella was outspoken from an early age. When six years old, she asked the local MP for South Cheshire: "Sir Malpas de Grey Tatton Egerton, did you tell my father was so pretty because you wanted his vote?"[7]
Edward Bird's controversial views against Sunday labour caused his congregation to dwindle and in 1842 he requested a transfer to St. Thomas's in Birmingham. Here again objections were raised which culminated in the minister being pelted "with stones, mud, and insults." In 1848, the family moved again and after spending some time in Eastbourne took up residence in Wyton in Huntingdonshire (now Cambridgeshire.)[7]
From early childhood Isabella was frail, suffering from a spinal complaint, nervous headaches and insomnia. The doctor recommended an open-air life [1] and as a result she learned to ride in infancy, and later to row. Her only education came from her parents: her father was a keen botanist and Isabella studied flora with him and her mother taught her daughters an eclectic mix of subjects. Isabella became an avid reader.[7] However, her " bright intelligence, [and] an extreme curiosity as to the world outside, made it impossible for her brain and her nature generally to be narrowed and stiffened by the strictly evangelical atmosphere of her childhood." [8] Isabella's first publication was at the age of sixteen: a pamphlet addressing Free Trade v Protectionism after which she continued writing articles for various periodicals.[5]
In 1850 a "fibrous tumour was removed from the neighbourhood of the spine". She continued to be unwell, suffering from unspecified ailments resulting in lassitude and insomnia. The family spent six summers in Scotland in an effort to improve her health.
Doctors urged a sea voyage, and in 1854 her life of travelling began when the opportunity arose for Isabella to sail to the United States accompanying her second cousins to their family home. Her father "gave her [£]100 and leave to stay away as long as it lasted.".[7] Her "bright descriptive letters" [5] written home to her relations formed the basis for her first book "An Englishwoman in America" [9] published by Murray in 1856. John Murray, "as well as being Isabella's lifelong publisher, ... [became] one of her closest friends. " [10]


Isabella Bird wearing Manchurian clothing from a journey through China.

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.[11] 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 The Leisure Hour,[11] 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.

The illustration of two Ainu men, originally from her 1880 book Unbeaten Tracks in Japan

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, Korea, 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.

Later years[edit]

Korea and Her Neighbours (1898)

Arriving on the subcontinent in February 1889, Bird visited missions in India, visited Ladakh on the borders of Tibet, and then travelled in Persia, Kurdistan and Turkey. In India, she worked with Fanny Jane Butler to found the John Bishop Memorial Hospital in memory of her recently deceased husband. 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.[11] 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.



  1. ^ a b c Dorothy Middleton (2004). Bishop [Bird], Isabella Lucy (1831–1904) Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. 
  2. ^ "Isabella Bird (1831–1904)". The John Murray Archive. National Library of Scotland. Retrieved 16 March 2014. 
  3. ^ Ogilvie, Marilyn Bailey (1986). Women in science : antiquity through the nineteenth century : a biographical dictionary with annotated bibliography (Reprint. ed.). Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press. p. 38. ISBN 9780262650380. 
  4. ^ "Health Care Institutes - John Bishop Memorial Mission Hospital, Kashmir". Diocese of Amritsar. Retrieved 2015-04-21. 
  5. ^ a b c "Mrs Bishop". The Times. Obituaries (London, England) (37521): 4. 10 October 1904. 
  6. ^ Lucas, Charles Prestwood (1912). Bishop, Isabella Lucy. Dictionary of National Biography. 
  7. ^ a b c d Stoddart, Anna M, (1906) The Life of Isabella Bird, Mrs Bishop : London, J. Murray OCLC 4138739
  8. ^ "The Life of Isabella Bird". The Spectator (London): 6. 26 January 1907. 
  9. ^ Bird, Isabella L. (1856). The Englishwoman in America. John Murray OCLC 169934144. 
  10. ^ David McClay. "Travels with Isabella Bird (transcript)". National Library of Scotland. Retrieved 17 March 2014. 
  11. ^ a b c 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.

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