Walter Rothschild is surely one of the most extraordinary figures of the
early twentieth century. He is justly famous as the addressee of the
Balfour Declaration, for he steadfastly believed in the "government
dedicated to social and national justice" which that paragraph sought to
establish in Palestine. His role in the family banking business, however,
is less obvious. Between the ages of twenty-one and thirty-nine, at his
father's behest, Walter spent every working day at the bank's headquarters
in New Court, London. He arrived punctually at nine and departed on the
stroke of five, yet there is not a scrap of evidence to indicate that he
actually did anything there -- no sign of a deal brokered or loan
approved, nothing so much as a paper bearing his signature. The reason
for this seems to be that all the time Walter was confined to that gilded
cage, his mind and heart were soaring with the birds. Natural history, and
ornithology in particular, was Rothschild's lifelong passion and he devoted
his entire income to it.
Between 1890 and 1931 Walter amassed, on the family estate at Tring in the
Chiltern foothils, the greatest museum collection ever held in private
hands. Among its treasures were two-and-a-quarter-million butterflies and
moths, 300,000 stuffed birds, 200,000 bird eggs, and 144 giant tortoises.
In stark contrast to the lack of tangible proof of his work at the bank,
Rothschild and his staff at Tring left an enormous legacy, foremost of
which are descriptions of 5,000 new species published in 1,200 scientific
books and papers. The collectors Rothschild employed were largely
responsible for this prodigious output, for time and again they obtained
the first, last, or only known specimen of a particular species. It was
Ernst Mayr's good fortune to commence his ornithological career as one of
this select and intrepid band.
[From Tim Flannery's "A Bird's-Eye View of Evolution", reviewing Ernst Mayr's
"The Birds of Northern Melanesia: Speciation, Ecology, and Biogeography" and
"What Evolution Is" (The New York Review of Books, June 27, 2002, p. 26);
more on Walter Rothschild in Miriam Rothschild's "Dear Lord Rothschild: Birds,
Butterflies and History" (Balaban, 1983)]
Back to the "garden"