[From Cal Central by Frank Perry]
James G. Cooper was born June 19, 1830, in New York City and was no doubt
influenced early in life by his father, William Cooper. His father was a
skilled naturalist and founder of the Lyceum of Natural History of New York.
The elder Cooper was one of the first Americans to publish articles on
vertebrate paleontology, and the Cooper's Hawk was named in his honor.
Unfortunately, James's mother, Mary Wilson Cooper, died when he was about five.
In 1837 the family moved to a farm in New Jersey where young James grew up
hunting, fishing, and collecting shells, birds' nests, reptiles, and other
natural history specimens. He kept squirrels, a raccoon, and an opossum as
PLOT 31, LOT 15
|The Wells Family Lot where James Cooper is buried|
were few jobs in the natural sciences in those days so, typical of many
naturalists at that time, James Cooper pursued and received medical degree. He
graduated from the College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York City in 1851.
The medical training also gave him a general background in science and would
enable him to, if necessary, earn a living as a physician while pursuing his
nature studies on the side.
the next decade, however, he worked at a series of government jobs where he
used both skills. In 1852 Cooper learned of plans for a series of government
surveys and explorations of the West. So he wrote to Spencer Fullerton Baird,
Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian, who helped find scientists for the
expeditions. Baird liked Cooper's enthusiasm. It would indeed be strange, Baird
wrote back, "if the son of one so intimately connected with the progress
of American science as your father should not have some of his
following year Cooper was assigned the job of surgeon and naturalist on a
government expedition in search of a transcontinental railroad route through
the Northwest. Young Cooper, thrilled at the opportunity to explore new lands,
set off on April 28th, 1853, on a steamer for the Washington Territory. They
traveled by way of the Isthmus of Panama and arrived at Fort Vancouver on the
Columbia River in mid June. The survey was to be made by the Army Corps of
Topographical Engineers, under the leadership of Captain George B. McClellan
(later to gain fame during the Civil War). The government wanted to know not
only about topography, but also about fauna, flora, and geological resources.
general principles to be observed in making collections of natural history in a
new country or one previously unexplored, is to collect everything which may
present itself, from time to time, subject to the convenience or practicality
of transportation. The number of specimens secured will, of course, depend upon
the dimensions, and the variety of form or condition caused by the different
features of age, sex, or season. ...In collecting specimens of any kind, it
will be important to fix, with the utmost precision, the localities where
found. ...It will not be possible to collect minerals, fossils, and geological
specimens in very great quantity or dimensions...."
team set out in mid July to explore the Cascade Range, with hopes of finding a
pass over the mountains. Over the next ten months, Cooper took notes and
collected birds, plants, and other specimens for shipment back to the
Smithsonian. He was paid a salary of $70 per month. Even after the expedition
disbanded, Cooper remained in Washington Territory, exploring the region
between the Columbia River and Puget Sound.
the next few years Cooper participated in several other government explorations
including the Wagon Road Expedition of 1857 and the Military Expedition to the
West in 1860. He also hiked through New England and traveled to Florida (partly
with his own funds) in search of specimens for museums.
|Smithsonian circa 1865|
not traveling, he kept busy at the Smithsonian, writing up the results of his
investigations. In Washington he worked with other important scientists, and
made connections with high ranking military and political figures, including
President Buchanan and Ulysses S. Grant. There were other amenities too:
"Saturday, P.M. I went on an excursion to Arlington and had a pleasant
time -- dined at Colonel [Robert E.] Lee's with a large party, many of them
charming damsels, and walked home with two of the beautifullest girls in
Cooper became depressed at the amount of time it took to get his reports
published and soon longed for the wilds.
wish I could find pleasure in any of the common ways, but boating, theatre,
opera, and all other such things have not charm for me, and I fear if I do not
soon get away from civilized life into the wild woods of Florida or most
anywhere else I shall get sick..."
1860, Cooper returned to the West Coast, eventually landing a job with the
Geological Survey of California, led by Professor Josiah D. Whitney. The state
legislature had appointed Whitney State Geologist and directed him: ³With aid
of such assistants as he may appoint, to make an accurate and complete
Geological Survey of the State, and to furnish, in his Report of the same,
proper maps and diagrams thereof, with a full and scientific description of its
rocks, fossils, soils, and minerals, and of its botanical and zoological
productions, together with specimens of the same.² Cooper worked on and off for
the survey, which suffered from sporadic funding, over the next ten years. He explored
southern California, the Farallons and Channel Islands, the Sierra, and the
Santa Cruz Mountains, among others.
visited Monterey in 1861, where he hired a boat to help in dredge for marine
life in Carmel Bay. He first visited Santa Cruz as in 1864. Here, he hoped to
find people with a love "...of simple pleasures and rural life..." He
predicted that someday the town would become a second Newport (referring to
Newport, Rhode Island). The place apparently appealed to him. In early 1866,
after marrying his wife Rosa, they moved to Santa Cruz, and he set up a medical
practice. In September he wrote to Baird:
am not making expenses yet at practice, but hope to make a living at it after a
while. It however keeps me pretty close [to] my office and prevents my
collecting much, as I have to be on hand in case of accident and not let them
go to one of the six other doctors in town."
letter from Santa Cruz, to British malachologist Philip Carpenter, reveals
Cooper's frustrations trying to carry out his scientific work:
to the pay, I care little, for it is not enough in this country to be worth the
trouble of working for; in fact, I got only half paid for my report on the four
classes [of] vertebrates and Mollusca. ...I have been following your example
and getting married, and now have to pay closer attention to my profession,
which in this country will not allow me to study the natural sciences very
deeply, as the practical Americans always consider a man either deranged
or neglectful of his business if he is known to be a naturalist."
his wife, and newborn son left Santa Cruz in 1867 and eventually settled in
Hayward where he finally managed to balance the practice of medicine with the
study of natural history.
was a Renaissance man of natural science back at a time when it was still
possible to hold such a title. He published on an incredible variety of topics:
medicinal plants, forest trees, birds, mammals, reptiles, land snails,
freshwater clams, coal distribution, marine mollusks, fishes, and fossils. In
all, he wrote over 150 papers. With regard to paleontology, his greatest
contribution was assembling a catalog of fossils collected by the California
Geological Survey, published in 1888. He also wrote a "Catalogue of Californian
Fossils," published in 1894. In it he described several new species of
fossil mollusks. He published separate reports on the Pliocene, Miocene, and
Eocene paleogeography in California. In his 1874 paper "California in the
Miocene Epoch," he correctly concluded that much of the Coast Ranges south
of San Francisco were under water during that time period.
Graham Cooper died in Hayward in 1902. William Healy Dall, at that time
America's preeminent authority on living and fossil mollusks, paid tribute to
the pioneer naturalist:
was one of the original group of young naturalists which gathered around
Professor Baird in the early days of the [Smithsonian] Institution...and whose
names are classic in the annals of zoology in this country. ... Dr. Cooper ...
for years ... was dependent upon his medical practice for support. But in spite
of these handicaps his work on the Pacific coast has been of primary
importance, and by his death passes away the last member of a group of men to
whom American zoology is permanently indebted."
species of marine mollusks, as well as the Cooper Ornithological Club, were
named in his honor.
He is buried in the family lot of Rev. Samuel Taggart Wells
, a founder of
Mountain View Cemetery. He married Rosa Wells in 1866,