Fifth Avenue and the Entangled Bank: Fashion in Field Biology

For his 1918 field season, ornithologist Edgar Chance made a gentleman’s bet. Like many scientists before him, Chance was, in fact, a gentleman. His family founded one of the largest glass companies in Britain. The same company that put the glass in Big Ben’s clock and the crystal in London’s Crystal Palace. But Chance was also an avid egg collector, and he bet that in one season he could collect more eggs from a single cuckoo than anyone had before.

The science behind the bet, though, is not what drew me to Chance’s story. I’ll get to that later. What drew me to Chance’s story was his clothing. In one of the earliest nature documentaries, Chance was featured stepping into his bird blind, binoculars in hand, wearing a full tweed suit complete with knickers, vest, and a matching cap.

In a profession where cargo shorts and toe-shoes now count as a reasonable substitute for formalwear, Chance’s field attire stood out. For most field biologists, clothing is of little concern outside practical matters (“If you tuck your pants into your socks, it’ll keep the chiggers out!”). Usually, you work deep inside the forest where the only contact you have is with your equally squalid peers. But recently my field site has changed from the jungles of India to a narrow strip of medians running down Broadway in New York City. While my chances of running into a cobra on the loose may not have changed, I see quite a few more people in my new field site compared to my last.

Urban ecology presents several unique challenges for the modern field biologist–Can I fit a ladder through a subway turnstile? Will city workers mistake my experimental setup for litter and throw it away? Is this secluded park a refuge for biodiversity or a convenient place to stage a mugging? On top of all that, you need clothes that are both comfortable in the field and smart enough to grab a drink at the end of a long day without looking like a vagrant.

Inspired by Chance, I decided to look into the past for more examples of well-dressed field biologists. The examples ranged from gentlemen like Chance–and a few gentlewomen–to creative socialites and TV personalities. While some have chosen pomp over comfort, there are a few sartorial features, like wide-brimmed hats and copious pocket space, that have remained constant over time. Between brightly colored cravats and Converse high-tops, there are plenty of ways to dress well and tackle the big questions in science.

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To get back to Chance’s story, Chance needed to collect more than 17 eggs from a single cuckoo to win his bet. Cuckoos are parasitic birds that lay their eggs in other birds’ nests, and Chance believed that cuckoos were limited not by the number of eggs they could lay but by the number of host nests in their territory. To test this, he collected as many nests as he could find to supplement his local cuckoos. Lo and behold, Chance was right, and he was able to coax one special cuckoo–“Cuckoo A”–to lay 25 eggs, crushing the previous record. In service of his bet, Chance learned more about cuckoo behavior than anyone had before, wrote two books, and produced one documentary film, The Cuckoo’s Secret, which starred none other than “Cuckoo A.” Taking a cue from Edgar Chance, I’ll arrive in New York this summer hopefully better dressed, and maybe this time I’ll put something on the line. Who knows, it couldn’t hurt.

Thanks to Will Kimler, John van Wyhe, John Stanton-Geddes, and Adrian Smith for helpful input on fashionable scientists.

By | 2016-11-22T14:23:38+00:00 March 11th, 2014|

About the Author:

Clint Penick is a biologist with interests in development and evolution. For his past work he traveled to India to study “How ants got their queen,” and now he’s working in New York City to study what ants eat and how ants respond to changing temperatures.

2 Comments

  1. Paul D Brinkman March 13, 2014 at 10:30 am - Reply

    Great post. My favorite example is the eccentric entomologist Benjamin Dann Walsh, who cut a very conspicuous figure when doing fieldwork in western Illinois. He carried a staff and a butterfly net. He wore a long, flowing cloak. On his head he donned a cork-lined dunce cap on which he pinned his captures. I’ll bet he was a ton of fun in the field.

  2. George Penick March 14, 2014 at 10:24 pm - Reply

    Satisfying, although the pics turned too fast for this 58 year old mind.

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