May Thatcher Cooke

May Thatcher Cooke


"To study women's history, then, is to take part in a bold enterprise that can eventually lead us to a new history, one that, by taking into account both sexes, should tell us more about each other and, therefore, our collective selves." Jane Sherron De Hart and Linda K. Kerber

photo of May Thacher CookeThe National Wildlife Research Center began in 1886 as the Division of Economic Ornithology and Mammalogy, changing later to the Bureau of Biological Survey (BBS). Women may have worked for the early BBS, but given the times, they probably had little visibility and held secretarial and other traditional jobs. At least one woman, May Thacher Cooke, did work for the early BBS as a biologist and her work appeared in USDA Circulars and Bulletins.

While some details of May's life are known, the unknown details raise interesting questions about her personal life, education, and professional opportunities, etc.May Thacher Cooke was born in 1885. She was the daughter of Professor Wells Woodbridge Cooke, a noted ornithologist and member of the American Ornithologists' Union (AOU). In 1901 Professor Cooke received an appointment to the BBS and, from that point on, devoted much of his time to the study of North American bird migration and distribution. Professor Cooke died suddenly in 1916, ten years after the death of May's mother.Professor Cooke's obituary stated that "his daughter," probably May, accompanied him on his last outing. May joined the AOU in 1915, and after her father's death, donated a large part of his bird skin collection to the AOU. Also after her father's death in 1916, May joined the staff of the BBS, and became the first woman AOU member to acquire institutional affiliation. Her job title varied and included assistant,scientific aid, and junior biologist.

Following in her father's professional footsteps, May became a leader in the program area of bird distribution and migration, recording her observations for the BBS and its successor agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. During her government service, May supervised the carding and filing of data on occurrences of North American birds. In 1920 the BBS became active in bird banding and May contributed to that program's administration. In addition, she published manynotes on the long-distance movements and longevity of birds based on the recovery of banded individuals.

May's work was published in USDA Circulars and Departmental Bulletins, and information she compiled on bird distribution and migration was also published in a number of volumes of the "Life Histories of North American Birds" by A.C. Bent. May also contributed substantially to the 1957 edition of the AOU's "Check-list of North American Birds." The "Birds of the Washington Region" was probably her most important publication.

In 1947 May retired from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. She died on June 13, 1963, in Washington, D.C.

Unanswered questions arise from the known facts of May's life. What type of education did she receive? What role did she play in her father's work? What were the exact circumstances that lead to her employment with the BBS? What about May's personal life and immediate family? What role did her class status have on her professional opportunities? How did current events affect her?

May began working for the federal government during the Progressive Era, the time roughly from 1880 to 1920. Not only was the Progressive Era a time of attempted social reform, it was an period when many women moved from the private to public sphere. May witnessed the passing of the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution giving women the right to vote. In addition, she lived through two world wars and witnessed the beginning of the Cold War. By examining the life of one woman, much can be learned about history in general and women's roles insociety.



  • Aldrich, John W. "May Thacher Cooke Obituary." Auk 82 (October 1965): 685.

  • Brinkley, Alan. American History: A Survey. New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1995.

  • Kerber, Linda and Jane Sherron De Hart. Women's America: Refocusing the Past. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

  • Kofalk, Harriet. No Woman Tenderfoot: Florence Merriam Baily, Pioneer Naturalist. College Station: Texas A & M University Press, 1989.

  • Palmer, T.S. "In Memoriam: Wells Woodbridge Cooke." Auk 34 (April 1917): 119-132.



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