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John Cassin never saw the western U.S.  but he left an indelible mark on California ornithology.  There are five species of western birds with Cassin as their common name.  Otherwise he is nearly forgotten.

Cassin was born to a Quaker family near Philadelphia in 1813.  His interest in natural science was there from the beginning.  He excelled in science studies at the Quaker boarding school in Westtown, Pennsylvania.  Incidentally that same school was attended by naturalists Thomas Say and John Townsend who also left their mark on American ornithology.  One of Cassin's old botany texts shows that as a teenager he was finding plant species not listed in the book and making his own descriptions.

He followed various careers to support himself and his wife and children.  He worked as an importer, through connections in the Democratic Party he was appointed to a customs post, then he ran a printing company supported largely by government contracts even during the Civil War.  Through it all Cassin was this country's first serious bird taxonomist.  He was made honorary curator of the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences in 1842.  Despite the "honorary" in the title he spent endless hours with the academy collection.  Cassin's science knowledge was broad.  He was the first to point out that the 17-year locusts were not all a single species.  As a result there are insect species named for him.  However, most of his energy was focused on birds.  The Academy was rapidly assembling a remarkable collection of bird skins from around the world.  Driven by Cassin's knowledge and energy, funded by wealthy Philadelphian, Dr. Thomas Wilson, the Academy began buying bird skins from around the globe.  The collection plus an extensive library, also paid for by Wilson, gave Cassin unparalleled resources.  With Dr. Wilson's money and the constant support of Spencer Baird of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, Cassin and the Philadelphia Academy were at the pinnacle of mid-19th century ornithology, possessing the largest bird skin collection then in existence.

As a result Cassin was the most informed U.S. ornithologist of his era.  Other scientists and collectors consulted him for information.  It is typical of Cassin that he discovered the Brewer's Sparrow skin while looking through the Academy's collection of Clay-colored Sparrows.  Though he was a talented field observer, it is believed that he personally collected just one bird of lasting significance.  In September, 1842, he shot a new vireo near Philadelphia and named it the Philadelphia Vireo.  Now we know the bird only passes through its namesake city during migration.

Cassin's contemporaries depended on his global knowledge of birds.  He wrote the text of several government scientific reports based on explorations of the western U. S. and military records from the Mexican War.  From his desk in the Philadelphia Academy he poured forth publications and articles on birds across the planet.  However, his own attempt to issue a series of books on western birds failed due to lack of subscriptions and the interruption of the Civil War.  One volume containing fifty illustrations and descriptions of western and Mexican birds did get published "as a supplement to Audubon's Birds of America." It is ironic that Cassin felt his book needed that sub-title to sell.  He had little respect for Audubon, "Audubon has been here…[I] do not particularly admire him…[he] is no naturalist." Cassin's Illustrations of the Birds of California, Texas, Oregon, British and Russian America was never completed and went out of print after 1865.  In fact, it was really a collection of well-edited fresh field notes from the western part of continent.  In some cases it contained  Heermann's Gull (photographer Calvin Lou)  the first published accounts of new species such as Heermann's Gull and the Wrentit, collected by Dr. William Gambel. 

By the time he died Cassin had written dozens of scientific articles and many hundreds of pages of thoughtful, detailed descriptions of the newly discovered birds of North America, Africa and the South China Sea.  Many government sponsored expedition reports written by Cassin were then printed by his printing company.

Through the years and increasing sickness, Cassin remained a bird fanatic, in his own words: "Did you say anything about California birds? …I am gone in that direction—totally gone—the Ornithological incubus or monomania—or old man of the sea—or goitre—or whatever it may be under which I have labored now for twenty years …took the direction of California birds…."

"Eureka! Gambel is here [Philadelphia] with his California birds & others—not very many, but some of the most magnificent specimens I ever saw—he has four new species…."

Cassin eventually described nearly 200 new bird species from around the world, nearly all from his Academy collection.  He first described and named Rufous-crowned Sparrow, Heermann's Gull, Acorn Woodpecker, California (Brown) Towhee, Ross's Goose, Williamson's Sapsucker, White-headed Woodpecker, Kauai Oo, Hutton's Vireo, Lawrence's Goldfinch, Sage Sparrow, Brewer's Sparrow and Black-throated Sparrow.

He was memorialized by others:  Gambel gave Cassin's Auklet its common name; George Lawrence gave the Cassin's Kingbird its common name; an army doctor in the southwest described a new sparrow and named it after Cassin while Baird himself named the a mountain-loving American finch after his friend.  Not surprising.  At the Smithsonian Baird gathered new specimens from all the military and railroad explorations of the U.S.  West and Mexico.  Most he then sent directly to Cassin to examine and describe.  It was soldier John Xantus who collected the first Cassin's Vireo near Fort Tejon, California, though for a long time it was not considered a separate species.  That Vireo brings John Cassin's current bird namesake count to five.

During the Civil War Cassin joined the Union Army, then served time in a military prison after being captured by the Confederates.  This certainly did not improve his failing health.

Cassin's own life was dedicated to, and shortened by his love of birds.  It is certain he knowingly suffered two decades of arsenic poisoning to further his knowledge.  It is probably the arsenic led to his death at the age of 55.  Yet John Cassin continued, in his own words, "mortgaging myself by perpetual lease to Arsenic and Liver complaint." The arsenic was contained in the mixture used to preserve the bird skins he would not stop handling.  This was an era long before plastic gloves.  John Cassin truly gave his life to bird study.


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