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Isabella Bird

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Isabella Lucy Bird

(1831-10-15)15 October 1831
Died 7 October 1904(1904-10-07) (aged 72)
Melville Street, Edinburgh, Scotland
Resting place Dean cemetery, Edinburgh
Nationality English
Other names Isabella Bishop
Occupation explorer, writer, photographer and naturalist
Spouse(s) John Bishop (m. 1881)
Parent(s) Dora Lawson, Edward Bird

Isabella Lucy Bird, married name Bishop (15 October 1831 – 7 October 1904), was a nineteenth-century English explorer, writer, photographer, and naturalist. With Fanny Jane Butler she founded the John Bishop Memorial hospital in Srinagar. She was the first woman to be elected Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.

Early life

She was born in Boroughbridge, Yorkshire. Her father, Edward Bird, was a Church of England priest and the family moved several times across Britain as Edward 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.

Isabella was a sickly child and spent her entire life struggling with various ailments, which seem to have had something of a psychogenic character: when she was doing exactly what she wanted she was almost never ill and what Isabella wanted to do was travel. In 1854, she was given £100 by her father and went to visit relatives in America. She was allowed to stay until her money ran out. The results of the journey, she wrote up anonymously in her first book The Englishwoman in America, published in 1856. The following year she went to Canada and then toured Scotland, but time spent in Britain always seemed to make her ill and following the death of her mother, in 1868, she embarked on a series of excursions in order to avoid settling permanently with her sister Henrietta (Henny) on the island of Mull. Henny was the stay-at-home type in a way that was unendurable to Isabella who supported her travels through writing. Many of her works are compiled from letters she wrote home to her sister in Scotland.


Isabella Bird Bishop Manchurian
Isabella Bird wearing Manchurian clothing from a journey through China.

Isabella finally left for foreign parts in 1872, going first to Australia, which she disliked and then to Hawaii (then called the Sandwich Isles), which she fell in love with and which led to her second book (published three years later in 1875). She then moved on to Colorado, then the newest state in America, where she had heard the air was excellent for the infirm. Dressed practically and riding not side saddle 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 and her letters back to Henny comprised her third and perhaps her most famous book, A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains.

Isabella's time in the Rockies was enlivened especially by her acquaintance with Jim Nugent, an outlaw with one eye and equal tendency towards violence and poetry. "A man any woman might love but no sane woman would marry", Isabella declared, in a section excised from her letters prior to their publication. Jim too seemed captivated by the independently minded Isabella but ultimately she left the Rockies and her "dear desperado". Jim was shot dead less than a year later.

At home, Isabella again found herself pursued, this time by John Bishop an Edinburgh doctor in his thirties. Predictably ill, she went travelling again, this time to the far east: Japan, China, Vietnam and Singapore. By this time Henny was ill and died of typhoid in 1880. Isabella was heartbroken and finally accepted Bishop's proposal of marriage. Her health took a severe turn for the worst but by the time Bishop himself died in 1886, Isabella had been put back together. Feeling that her earlier travels had been hopelessly dilettante, she studied medicine and resolved to travel as a missionary. Despite nearing sixty, she set off for India.

Later years

PSM V34 D092 Ainu of yezo
The illustration of two Ainu men, originally from her 1880 book Unbeaten Tracks in Japan

Arriving on the subcontinent in February 1889, Isabella visited missions in India, crossed Tibet and then travelled in Turkey, Persia and Kurdistan. The following year she joined a group of British soldiers travelling between Baghdad and Tehran. She remained with the unit's commanding officer during a period of his survey work in the region armed with her revolver and a medicine chest supplied (an early example of corporate sponsorship) by Henry Wellcome's company in London.

Featured in journals and magazines for decades, Isabella was by now something of a household name and recognition followed. In 1892, she became the first woman inducted into the Royal Geographical Society. Her final great journey took place in 1897 where she travelled up the Yangtze and Han rivers in China and in Korea. But, later still, she went to Morocco, where she travelled among the Berbers and had to use a ladder to mount her horse. She died in Edinburgh within a few months of her return, on October 7, 1904, just 8 days before 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.


  • The Englishwoman in America (1856)
  • The Hawaiian Archipelago (1875)
  • A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains (1879)
  • Unbeaten Tracks in Japan (1880)
  • The Golden Chersonese and the way Thither (1883)
  • Journeys in Persia and Kurdistan (1891)
  • Among the Tibetans (1894)
  • Korea and her Neighbours (1898)
  • The Yangtze Valley and Beyond (1899)
  • Chinese Pictures (1900)
  • Notes on Morocco (published in the Monthly Review) (1901)

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