Explorer and writer Isabella Bird was born in Yorkshire in 1831. She became one of a small group of intrepid women who defied the conventions of Victorian society in travelling around the world and writing about it.
The daughter of a reverend, Isabella was raised with strong evangelical views that informed her view of the world and her philanthropic work. As she followed her father through his benefices around England, Isabella became used to a nomadic lifestyle at an early age. Moreover, having being born with a spinal defect and general poor health, for which she was encouraged to spend as much time as possible outdoors, this puny, sickly child learned in her early years horse riding, rowing, and the habit to interrogate, observe and write about her surroundings.
Everything suggests a beyond.
After undergoing a surgery for her spine and having been advised to take a sea voyage for her health, Isabella took her first journey at the age of twenty-three, first to Prince Edward Island to visit a cousin and from there to mainland Canada and the United States. She wrote an account of this in her book The English Woman in America, which was published in 1856 and was going to be the first of many books detailing her travels and adventures.
In 1858, following her father’s death, Isabella relocated to Edinburgh with her mother and sister Henrietta. She became especially fond of the Highlands and the Isle of Mull, where she spent time in her sister’s cottage in Tobermory. Whenever she was back from her travels, Isabella lived with her sister, to whom she used to write long letters, many of which were published. By this point, the 1860s, Isabella’s travels had extended from the United States to the Mediterranean, the Pacific and Asia.
Only poor health thwarted Isabella’s restlessness and continuous desire for adventure. Despite the spinal surgery, she kept suffering from a bad back and was often bedridden, but she kept going, and in 1872 she embarked on a trip to Australia, New Zealand and the Sandwich Islands. From there, she went to Hawaii and North America and spent the last months of 1873 in the Rocky Mountains, where she got to finesse her horse riding and had a short-lived romance with a cowboy. On this occasion, she travelled for about eighteen months and published two volumes, one on the Hawaiian Archipelago’s wildlife, which was of interest to scientists as well as the general public, and the second titled A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains.
I dreamt of bears so vividly that I woke with a furry death hug at my throat, but feeling quite refreshed.
Back home in Edinburgh in 1876-7, she developed an interest in science and medicine that led her to meet Dr. John Bishop, who she would have married a few years later. She went on to travel through Japan, the Malay Peninsula, Egypt and the Sinai Peninsula, where she contracted typhoid fever, after which she returned to Scotland. There, Henrietta died in June 1880 and in 1881 Isabella married Dr. Bishop, ten years her junior.
After his death in 1886, Isabella devoted herself to the cause of medical missions, studying medicine at St. Mary’s Hospital London and joining the missionary cause. Armed with new knowledge and strengthened ideals, she traveled to Ireland and India, where she founded two hospitals: the John Bishop Memorial Centre in Cashmere and the Henrietta Bird Hospital for Women in Punjab.
By 1890, Isabella’s fame was established as both a traveller and a missionary advocate. She was made a fellow of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society in 1891 and a fellow of the Royal Geographic Society, to which no woman had previously been admitted. She travelled through Canada to Japan, Korea and China, funding on her way three more hospitals as well as an orphanage in Japan. On her return to England she published books on both Korea and China, which were illustrated by photographs she herself had taken on her journeys.
In December 1900, almost seventy years old, Isabella went to Morocco for six months, but poor health forced her to stop writing and return to Scotland. She was planning another visit to China, but her health quickly deteriorated and she died in Edinburgh in 1904. In her will, she bequeathed some funds for the Henrietta Amelia Bird memorial clock in Tobermory, which to this day is the town clock.