“The Work of the Natural History Society in Relation to Civic Development”

John Davidson believed that the development of the City of Vancouver and its public institutions should include buildings and sites dedicated to natural history. Read Davidson’s 1918 presidential address to the Vancouver Natural History Society to learn more about his vision for Vancouver.
The following text is a faithful and precise transcription of the original text and includes errors in spelling, grammar or punctuation present in the original.


Presidential address to Vancouver Natural History Society
Session 1918 – 1919

September 28th, 1918

We are now fellow members of a full-fledged Natural History Society, and realising the honour of delivering the first Presidential address, I was somewhat at a loss to decide on a suitable topic for discussion this evening. I thought of several subjects botanical and zoological, each of which I believed would interest you, but somehow or other I felt that it would be more profitable to spend this first evening in giving you an outline of the work that lies ahead of us, and show the relation of that work to other phases of civic and educational activity in which our members may be engaged.

It matters little what line of occupation you follow, each can do something to help along our work; you may not be an active naturalist yourself, yet your encouragement, your assistance, may be the means of kindling the spark of enthusiasm which will result in some friend becoming distinguished in one or other of the natural sciences.

In by-gone days, a Natural History Society was regarded as an aggregation of eccentric old men who collected fossils, rocks, bugs, and plants, and stored them until they became mitey and musty; if there are any persons today who adhere to that conception, they are from 25-50 years behind the times, and if they do not wake up soon they will find themselves classed amongst the few eccentric old people who are not interested in the study of nature.

The modern conception of a naturalist has enlarged to include all who study life and the various factors affecting it. The botanist is no longer regarded as one who studies dried plants, his activities are in the field and in the laboratory, he studies the relation of the life of plants to environment, the soil, the climate, exposure and other factors which influence or affect their growth.

The zoologist is no longer regarded as one who captures animals merely to be killed, classified, and stuffed or stored away in cases. The study of their habits, life-histories, their methods of obtaining food and their adaptations to changes of environment, is much more fascinating than the study of their dead bodies.

Anyone who studies life, will observe that the life cycle is composed of two periods or stages; first there is a period of personal gain for the benefit of the individual, followed by a period of generous giving for the benefit of others.

The embryo plant is supplied with food stored up in the seed, the rapidly growing roots and leaves take all the food materials they can absorb, much more than the plant requires to maintain itself in health and vigor, it prepares for the next stage, the period of giving. The food so eagerly absorbed and stored is, during this period, given up – distributed amongst innumerable flowers for the benefit of succeeding generations. Its life’s work is finished, it withers and dies, but the good it has done lives after it.

These two periods are beautifully illustrated in the life history of the butterfly, first we have the blind, crawling, voracious, wormlike caterpillar, whose chief business is to take all the food it can, greedily eating, till it bursts its skin several times before reaching the second period. Then we have the beautiful butterfly, with eyes and wings, no longer a creeping creature, but capable of soaring heaven-ward, basking in the warmth of the sun, rendering service to plants by carrying pollen from flower to flower, thus fitting into the whole scheme of nature in assisting the life work of other creatures. The butterfly may live for only a few days, but in her brief life she gives service in pollinating flowers and does the best she can for future generations by selecting suitable food plants on which to deposit her eggs: - she dies, but her life has not been in vain.

Those two periods of life are also illustrated in the life of every normal human being – I say normal because some human beings never reach the second period; this has no special reference to supposed scottish traits, we find examples in every nationality.

The child’s life during infancy is a continual demand for everything. The child of two or three years grasps everything he can lay his hands on, and will cry because he cannot reach the moon. Some children attain old age without passing beyond this stage; throughout their existence personal gain constitutes their politics, their religion, and their life’s work.

It is natural therefore that the first part of one’s life should be devoted to gaining all that will benefit the individual, physical and mental health and exercise, education, and experience, so that he or she may enter into and enjoy the pleasures and privileges of the second period, that of generous giving for the benefit of succeeding generations.

If we study the origin and development of great cities, we see that they too pass through the same evolutionary stages that are so evident throughout Nature.

When pioneers first settled on the southern shore of Burrard Inlet, they did not begin work by the erection of an Art and Sculpture Gallery, or the establishment of a Technical College; such institutions would be out of place during the first period in the development of a city, where every form of energy is devoted to material gain. This is, as it should be; because it is the natural order of things. Gradually, however, as citizens pass from the primitive ideas of life to the more advanced stage, we see evidences of normal and healthy civic development, various institutions are established for the benefit of future generations; and the status of a city is largely judged by the number and quality of such institutions.

New York, London, Glasgow, Paris, and other world famed cities all have their public libraries, museums, art galleries, zoological or botanical gardens, universities and other educational institutions, each of which have helped in no small degree to make those cities famous; but the difference between their institutions and those of Vancouver is largely due to the number of citizens who have reached the generous giving period of their lives. Large numbers of citizens of the above towns have devoted their time, their talents, and money, towards the establishment of some lasting benefit to the community, their names are perpetuated and their memories kept green by the numerous buildings and collections which their donations have made it possible to procure.

Until within the past few years our city as a whole has been going through the first stage, most of our largest buildings have been erected for purposes of material gain for individuals. Besides our schools and hospitals what public institution does Vancouver possess, which we, as citizens, would proudly show to visitors?