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Society for the History of Natural History

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Professor Tim Birkhead – awarded the SHNH Founders’ Medal

Professor Tim Birkhead – awarded the SHNH Founders’ Medal

Congratulations to Professor Tim Birkhead FRS for being awarded the SHNH Founders’ Medal. The Founders’ Medal is awarded to persons who have made a substantial contribution to the study of the history or bibliography of natural history.

Tim is a zoologist, professor of behavior and evolution at the University of Sheffield, and an award-winning author.  Natural History titles include:

  • The Most Perfect Thing: the Inside (and Outside) of a Birds’ Egg. Bloomsbury, 2016.
  • Virtuoso by Nature: the Scientific Worlds of Francis Willughby FRS (1635-1672). Brill, Leiden, 2016.
  • Bird Sense: What it’s like to Be a Bird, Bloomsbury, 2012.
  • The Wisdom of Birds: An Illustrated History of Ornithology Bloomsbury 2008, 2011.
  • Great Auk Islands; a Field Biologist in the Arctic. A&C Black, 2011.  
  • Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology since Darwin, Princeton University Press, 2011.
  • The Magpies: The Ecology and Behaviour of Black-Billed and Yellow-Billed Magpies. A&C Black, 2010.

TRB The-Wisdom-of-Birds-front-cover


In receiving the award Tim said:

For a number of different reasons, receiving the Founders’ Medal means a great deal to me. In the 1980s, a friend who knew of my ornithological interests asked me about some bird name she had come across in the local rector’s game book from the 1700s. They were: the chatterer, dun-diver and scallop-toed sandpiper. I was as mystified as she was, but at least I knew where to start: John Ray’s The Ornithology of Francis Willughby published in 1678. I hadn’t previously given this book much time, but as I read the species accounts in search of those names, I became utterly intrigued by what John Ray and Francis Willughby knew about birds, and how we, today, know what we know about birds.

Visiting the excellent ornithological libraries in Oxford and Cambridge, and those of some private individuals, I began to realise that the history of ornithology was a wonderful window through which to view today’s science. Then, in the early 2000s I started teaching final-year biology undergraduates a course, officially called ‘the history and philosophy of science’, but in reality, a guide to what it means to be a scientist today. I decided to include lectures on the history of topics such as evolution, sexual selection and reproduction: all interesting in their own right, but also providing crucial context for other courses the students take. In this way, my interests in the history of ornithology and the history of science in general became intertwined.

For me, teaching undergraduates, conducting research and exploring the history of science are all interconnected and I have tried to persuade others to share my enthusiasm by writing popular, yet scholarly science books on these topics. Most have been about birds, because my main area of scientific expertise is on the evolution and physiology of avian infidelity, but they are also about science and how it is done. The practitioners of science are as diverse as any other sector of society; enthusiasts, obsessives, extroverts, introverts, charmers and charlatans, which means there are some great stories to be told. And that’s what engages students. It is what makes David Attenborough great: he tells stories. The days of cramming students with lists of Latin names or endless facts are over. My job as an educator is to inspire and encourage students to engage and discover things for themselves.

History, which I hated at school, has played a key role in all of this. Many scientists now recognise that knowing some history not only helps place current research in context, it allows one to see the actual process of science, and it helps to avoid reinventing the wheel. What started out as something of a sideline is now an integral part of my own academic vision. Receiving the Founders’ Medal is a signal that my work in the history of science has been recognized, and for this I am extremely grateful.

Oh yes, and those bird names: chatterer: waxwing; dun-diver: red-breasted merganser, and scallop-toed sandpiper: a phalarope.

Tim Birkhead
Department of Animal & Plant Sciences, University of Sheffield, Sheffield S10 2TN.


The SHNH Founder’s Medal

6998f03aacThe SHNH Founders’ Medal is awarded to persons who have made a substantial contribution to the study of the history or bibliography of natural history.

More information and list of past recipients of the medal.