Articles

THE ACID-MINDED PROFESSOR

Alberta’s Dr. William Rowan has been heard to say he’s full of contempt for humanity and that women aren’t the equals of men, but he’s still crowding an eighteen-hour day to teach the young and others the vital truths of biological survival

BARBARA MOON May 15 1952
Articles

THE ACID-MINDED PROFESSOR

Alberta’s Dr. William Rowan has been heard to say he’s full of contempt for humanity and that women aren’t the equals of men, but he’s still crowding an eighteen-hour day to teach the young and others the vital truths of biological survival

BARBARA MOON May 15 1952

THE ACID-MINDED PROFESSOR

Articles

Alberta’s Dr. William Rowan has been heard to say he’s full of contempt for humanity and that women aren’t the equals of men, but he’s still crowding an eighteen-hour day to teach the young and others the vital truths of biological survival

BARBARA MOON

ONCE upon a time an undergraduate cartoonist sketched an owl perched pompously on a branch. Beside it he drew another owl, broadening the ear tufts to suggest a mortarboard, turning the wings into a tattered academic gown and the circles about the solemn eyes into pincenez. One more drawing completed his Evolution of the Professor: out on a limb, head in the clouds, blinking in mild astonishment at the world of men, the Typical Professor clutched alike at his gown and his dignity, happily unaware, of course, that he’d forgotten his trousers.

The three-column cartoon has since fitted handily into blank spaces in scores of school yearbooks. It has also helped to perpetuate a myth as per-

sistent as the one that snakes swallow their young. This is the legend that all university professors are fussy, bespectacled, unworldly beings, clad in rumpled suits, clutching abstractedly at books and prey to lamentable absent-mindedness.

Dr. William Rowan, who knows that snakes don’t eat their young, also insists that professors, like all other humans, come in as many shapes, sizes and shades of opinion as the Pied Piper’s retinue. He is the typical university professor precisely because he is only typical of himself.

Rowan has been a biology professor for thirtythree years and head of the zoology department at the University of Alberta in Edmonton for thirty-two of them. A short vigorous man with a sardonic face, a kind heart, a caustic tongue and a vast interest in the bewildering grammar of human behavior, he investigates almost everything that comes in range of his bifocals, which he calls his “double-decker specs.”

Besides his full-time job as a professor, Rowan, now sixty-one, has taught himself to shoot, cook, play the piano, sculpt and sketch; he has written three books, half a novel and innumerable scientific pamphlets, and he has broadcast over Canadian networks on subjects ranging from conservation to

world affairs. He has raised five children, the youngest now twentythree, has taught nearly fifteen thousand students, has become the acknowledged Canadian authority on the migration of birds and one of the outstanding conservationists in the wescern hemisphere.

In 1946 he won the Flavelle Medal from the Royal Society of Canada for outstanding research work. His experiments with crows and rabbits are known and cited by biologists all over the world. He has also experimented with juncos, starlings, mink and people.

Everything Rowan learns is ultimately applied to his understanding of humans. Or, to put it another way, he explains man’s behavior in terms of his brute origin. Students in Rowan’s two courses—Biology 41 and Zoology 55—soon learn that all vertebrates have brains and that man’s is only more highly developed because it’s his form of adaptation to his environment. Students also learn that they’re legitimate targets for Rowan’s experiments to determine how far their particular brains have developed.

At the start of one semester he went around the zoology laboratory before class and adjusted the shades on the goose-necked lamps at each place so the light would shine in each student’s face. His object was to prove that most humans lack the intelligence to recognize and remove a distraction. He succeeded for only five percent adjusted the shades. This, Rowan feels, bore out the Doctrine of the Elect. “Throughout the brief history of mankind human progress has depended on a very few intellects of outstanding calibre,” he claims. He screens his classes for minds capable of development. The students who wait after a lecture to challenge his thesis or ask a searching question are those he feels are thinking for themselves.

Often he invites them along after lectures to his office under the eaves of the Medical Building. They come singly or in groups to drink coffee brewed over a Bunsen burner and talk about philosophy, sex, religion, politics and the other time-honored subjects of college bull sessions.

The Rowan lecture that provokes the flattest contradictions, the most searching questions and the biggest hubbub is the lecture on sex Rowan gives each year to the Biology 41 class. Having covered the productive systems of lower forms of life the course winds up with that of the human. He prefers to dismiss the anatomical facts of life by recommending a standard text on the subject or— as he did this year—by hiring a cartooned film called Human Reproduction from the provincial film library. Then he settles his coat on his shoulders and proceeds to talk turkey about the intellectual and emotional relationships between the sexes.

If he lectures to men and women separately — he tried it last year—this may involve frank marriage-clinic-type advice. If he lectures to combined groups he waters it down. Either way there’s one point he’s bent on making: biologically there is no basis for equality of t he sexes. Man has, on the average, a larger brain better supplied with

oxygen. “Therefore,” says Rowan, “the creative intellectual functions belong to man.” Woman, being biologically as different from him as a jeep from a Cadillac, has a different function. It is to inspire man, to be a partner rather than a competitor, to shore him up with sympathy and devotion. *

Some women take violent issue with this flat-footed statement of a doulile standard. Rowan, who concedes that women are indispensable, usually tries to soothe them by underlining the fundamental importance of feminine inspiration, but when he’s really backed into a corner he has been heard to mutter, “I’m full of contempt for humanity, but a little more for women than men.”

He lectures six times a week and conducts four three-hour labs. He also gives one evening extension lecture in fine art. Even the students who are moved to a momentary fury usually end up liking his lectures. AÍ Oeming, a former student, says, “He’s humorous, he’s enthusiastic and lively, and he drops in lots of provocative stuff.” Oeming, who now collaborates on Rowan’s rabbit experiments in the time he can spare from promoting wrestling matches, also says that Rowan plays no favorites when he marks examination papers. Oeming flunked his first biology test because he hadn’t read the assigned textbook.

Rowan sets his examinations with care and has his own yardstick for a successful paper: “If women get all the high marks I know there were too many memory questions.”

Setting and marking papers, lecturing, seeing students, planning courses and administering his department fill an eight-hour working day. To cram in his other activities Rowan keeps going eighteen and a half hours. He rises at six and works till breakfast answering letters, preparing speeches, reading, or writing reviews of scientific books.

After his poached egg on toast he drives nine blocks to the campus from his white stucco bungalow in the Garneau district. He keeps one afternoop a week free for his current

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research project. If he has time he’ll nap for half an hour before dinner, then go to a meeting of the Edmonton Fish and Game Association, a lecture to the South Side Kiwanis, or his art class. Afterward he’ll read, write more letters or file personal papers and pamphlets until bedtime at anywhere from twelve-thirty to three o’clock.

Though Rowan claims he’s slowing down, he drives his 1938 Plymouth with furious concentration, scurries across the campus hatless and often coatless, chain - smokes and drinks eighteen cups of coffee a day. His chin is habitually thrust forward in enquiry or challenge and his hair is swept back from his large forehead into a jaunty duck’s tail just above the nape of his neck.

Over the years both Edmonton and the university have been exposed to Rowan’s unflagging liveliness and to scientific experiments involving crows with yellow tails, men jumping blindfolded into the river, and floodlit cages jammed with ratchet-voiced birds caterwauling long after dusk in the centre of town. They’ve come to expect such heady fare of Rowan, who comments, “I love the dramatic in life.”

Rowan’s peculiar blend of drama and science is rooted deep in his background. The son of a Danish mother and an Irish father who was consulting engineer to the French government, he spent his early years amid the baroque luxuries of nineteenth-century Switzerland and Paris, and Edwardian England. “We never had less than fifteen flunkeys,” he muses in his faintly guttural voice.

Though his parents had forbidden him concerts because of the moodiness that always ensued Rowan, at thirteen, began teaching himself piano, composing songs and scribbling esoteric verse. But he suffered from “a deep-rooted sense of frustration,” and a combination of adventure-promising CPR advertisements and the fact that a family acquaintance had a ranch fifty miles north of Gleichen, Alta., brought him to Canada in 1908. After three years

of cowpunching he contemplated taking a music degree at McGill University, but decided it was too late. With a fine gesture he hurled into the furnace all his music and poetry. He would be a scientist.

Now he says, “I’ve regretted it all my life.” He returned to England and plunged into the study of biology at University College, London, and in 1919 landed a job with the zoology department of the University of Manitoba.

He brought with him his lovely English bride, Reta, a soprano-intraining with the D’Oyly Carte Company. The next year they moved together to the University of Alberta where Rowan was to set up a new zoology department.

Old Crow Eggnog Special

He was already interested in bird migrations. His students soon discovered the hazards of studying under a man with an itch to experiment. The problem that puzzled Rowan was the nature of the signal that sends birds away on precise schedule every fall and brings them hack in spring. The only factor in their environment that seemed absolutely regular was the shortening of the days in fall and their lengthening in spring. Rowan decided to subject crows to an artificial Marchin-October by caging them and lengthening their days with electric light.

He tried his experiment in 1929 and again in 1931. Both times the first step was to get crows. Students, Boy Scouts and faculty members were pressed into service and found themselves manning gopher traps, drop-door cages and nets. As bait they used carcasses from the pound and the zoo and even rotten eggs. They even tried injecting the eggs with alcohol to stupefy the birds. The crows loved the eggnogs but held their liquor like gentlemen.

The final drive for crows for the 1931 experiment was the most memorable of all. It took place on a Sunday in a spinney near a suburban Roman Catholic church where large numbers of crows had been reported. With fifteen students Rowan drove over at dusk and crept stealthily into the

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grove. The party raised a coarse net, seized sticks and, at a starting gun fired by Rowan, began to yell and strike at the trees. About fifty startled birds flew into the net and stuck there.

While Rowan was stowing them in gunny sacks a student pelted up crying, “We’re in the hands of the police.” A torch shone in Rowan’s face and a relieved Irish voice said: “Someone burning down the church, is it? Why, it’s only the professor after crows.” A caretaker, closing the church after evening service, had given the alarm.

Though enough of the treated crows had been recovered north of Edmonton in the fall of 1929 to suggest Rowan had succeeded in fooling them about the season, he hoped for even better results in 1931. This time he marked his birds for easy recognition by airbrushing yellow Duco onto their tails. The effect was surrealistic but satisfactory. He also planned to release the birds farther south in the province so that any northbound crows would fly over as thickly populated an area as possible.

Grant McConaehie was hired to fly

the crows south. McConaehie, now president of Canadian Pacific Airlines, had just acquired a four-seater plane. An early start was essential, but on the appointed morning the flight was delayed several hours, ostensibly because of fog. Later Rowan learned that McConaehie, required to put in twelve hours’ flying time before he could take up his first revenue passenger in his new plane, had spent the morning circling the airport to clock enough time. Because of the delay the birds were again released too close to wilderness to make recovery easy.

The 1931 experiment was only slightly more conclusive than the earlier one. However both demonstrated changing day-lengths spark the semiannual flights of migrating birds.

They also demonstrated Rowan’s ability to get more people into the act than any other Canadian biologist. Because recovering every possible released bird was essential to plotting the flylines every birdwatcher in the province had to be alerted. Rowan also gave interviews to newspapers, made radio appeals and offered five-dollar rewards for the return of certain birds. Reports came in by mail, telephone, telegraph and private short-wave wireless from every corner of the province, the rest of the prairies, states to the south, and northwest British Columbia. A letter arrived from the Magdalen Islands in the mouth of the St. Lawrence saying that Rowan crows had not been spotted there.

Hamburgers For Everyone

Currently Rowan is recruiting the new crop of biology students for his rabbit-cycle experiments. Regularly every ten years in north temperate latitudes rabbits, other fur - bearing mammals and resident game birds reach astounding peaks of population. Immediately afterward follows a crash so sudden and devastating that returns in one department of the Hudson’s Bay Co. dropped in a few years from sixtythree thousand pelts to about two thousand. This is a peak year and game is plentiful, but already the rabbits are sickening and dying and soon game limits will have to be readjusted.

Rowan thinks the answer may lie in a periodic deficiency of some climaticfactor like ultra-violet rays, in combination with a vitamin-deficient diet. He’s trying to build an enclosed population of rabbits and, by varying their diet and exposing them to artificial ultra-violet, immunize them to the coming crash. So the students’ jobs are mending fences in the rabbit pens and going on regular rabbit roundups. The field trips are always fun and Rowan provides hamburgers for everyone.

The only time Rowan’s students have participated reluctantly in an experiment came when he attempted to make mink breed twice a year by simulating a second spring with artificial light. The Mink Breeders’ Association was disappointed when he gave up—artificial winter hadn’t preceded artificial spring so the mink weren’t fooled—but the undergraduates in the Medical Building rejoiced. The pungent mink were kept in the basement cloakroom and the room was getting pretty gamy.

Rowan’s experiments have been backed by bodies like Johns Hopkins and Harvard .Universities and the Alberta Research Council. The money for the earliest ones came from Rowan’s own pocket, and even now the grants often will not stretch.

As head of his department the biologist gets about $5,400 a year. While his children were growing up his freneticpace was dictated by the necessity of earning extra money.

When he started teaching Rowan drew some biological charts to illustrate his lectures and discovered he had a talent for drawing. Although he finds it drudgery he has since turned out scores of exquisite pencil sketches of birds and animals. Almost all have been sold and one of a wood bison brought a hundred dollars from a private collector.

He taught himself sculpture and sold models of wild animals. He ground out detective stories for pulp maga-

zines, though he has since managed to forge! their titles, purchasers and plots, and has no copies.

In the Forties a magnificent polarbear skin brought a hundred dollars to buy food parcels for Britain. Rowan’s collection of bird skins—the finest in western Canada—went to cover an insurance premium.

Ratio talks have earned him as much as five hundred dollars a season. Though he has often broadcast free over local stations he is paid for all scripts accepted by the CBC. His standard subject has always been Canadian wildlife. Increasingly, however, he has become impatient with such limited topics. As a biologist he feels he has far more comprehensive and urgent facts to present.

He had a chance last year when the CBC invited him to expand a script on world problems he’d left with them into two talks for their Sunday series, Our Special Speaker. The talks, broadcast in Feb. 1951 over the TransCanada network, pulled no punches.

The combination of overpopulation and failure of food resources, Rowan said, constitute one of the world’s most grievous problems, and it is a biological problem. The second problem is also biological: man is determinedly reversing the principle of survival of the fittest, and breeding instead a race of degenerates.

“During the last two wars we sent to the front for priority of extermination the very best in male brains, physique and health that the most up-to-date modes of selection could find . . .” he thundered. “In the meantime science and medicine between them are steadily increasing the survival rate of those unfortunates who for one reason or another are born defectives. They are deemed unfit to be sacrificed on the altar of war yet fit to perpetuate the human race.” If man persists the race will regress and die out, as the dinosaurs did.

The talks brought hundreds of enthusiastic letters and phone calls and more than four hundred requests for reprints. Rowan answered every one. “1 haven’t been to bed before one since the deluge arrived,” he wrote sorrowfully to the CBC, “and it has been as late as three a.m.”

Rowan has little time for recreation. He rarely goes to movies, though he liked A Song to Remember—based on the life of Chopin so much he saw it six times. He loves music but hasn’t bad time to play the piano for two and a half years.

Occasionally, usually during the summer, he writes for his own pleasure. He has a half-finished novel tucked away and has completed a book on his crow experiments and one analyzing man’s behavior from the biological viewpoint.

Rowan likes to get away for a day’s shooting for mallards or Hungarian partridge. His shooting partner for twenty-five years has been J. H. MacDonald, an Kdmonton lawyer, and, since both are crack shots, they count

on getting their limit. Rowan habitually uses a thirty-three-year-old doublebarreled hammer gun he bought for twenty dollars. He claims he can’t afford another.

A year ago Rowan accidentally backed his car over the gun. He refused to pay the ten dollars asked by the local gunsmith for repairs and fixed it himself by laying it in the road and running the car over it again.

At home Rowan tries to manage a few free moments every day to play with his three-year-old flying squirrel. He calls her Lovekin, feeds her on rice,

jam and cream, and prefers to ignore her bad habits. These include nesting in his top drawer among ravelings from his wool socks. Lovekin and a white Angora cat named Jolie are the latest in a long line of pets which have included dogs, horned owls, a coyote and two cougars.

The best chance of catching Rowan in a relaxed mood is when he is sitting over a pot of coffee in his office in the Medical Building on the campus. The room is a wildly cluttered mélange of science and art.. The heaverhoard walls are lined with bookshelves where

sculpture crowds specimen jar. Long tables piled with pamphlets bracket the desk and sketches hang side by side with lecture schedules. There are two fine wolfskins on the floor, an ingenious indirect lighting system and a record player.

Rowan will put on the Warsaw Concerto, perch on a stool and gesture with his cigarette holder. “Ah,” he’ll sigh mockingly, “1 should have been a musician. I’m sick of the sight of rabbits.”

Then, quite serious, he’ll add, “I’ve tried to make teaching a profession.” if